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Senior Policy Fellow Argues Terror Attack Should Not Lead To More War

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Almost 20 years ago, then-President George W. Bush stood before the world on September 11, 2001 and said this.

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GEORGE W BUSH: Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.

CORNISH: President Bush took the U.S. into war in Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Now, just a few weeks from the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from that long war. And now, the suicide bombing yesterday in Kabul has prompted President Joe Biden to make a similar pledge.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.

CORNISH: The president may want retribution against the attackers, but Stephen Wertheim says it shouldn't derail the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a historian on U.S. foreign policy.

Welcome to the program.

STEPHEN WERTHEIM: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: In the face of these attacks, you're saying - or you've talked about the idea that the U.S. shouldn't lose focus on the larger goal of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Can you talk about why?

WERTHEIM: Well, I think the most important thing for the United States when it comes to the use of force is safeguarding the security of the United States. Now, I think that what happened after 9/11, two decades ago, was something that actually went far beyond and in some ways contradicted what was best for the security of the United States. My issue with George W. Bush, when he said he would hunt down those responsible, was that actually, what the United States mainly did was to engage in nation-building missions in Afghanistan and another one in Iraq wholly disconnected from the attack on 9/11. And I think that...

CORNISH: Now, President Biden has talked very much in opposite terms. What did you hear from his speech the other night that raises red flags for you?

WERTHEIM: Well, I think President Biden does seem to be suggesting a different kind of response to this terrorist attack than the response two decades ago from the 9/11 attacks. He emphasized the need to complete the evacuation mission. He did suggest that there would be strikes against those responsible, which appear to be the Islamic State's offshoot in Afghanistan. And I think what is potentially concerning is exactly what the mission will be in some kind of retaliatory action in the future. But I think what he said was, in principle, consistent with a short-term response that imposes punishment on this offshoot of the Islamic State, but does not engage in a long-term mission in Afghanistan to try to reshape the politics of that country.

CORNISH: You said the U.S. did in some way accomplish what it set out to do in Afghanistan, quote, "weakening al-Qaida in the region." Why do you think the U.S. should withdraw not just from Afghanistan, but from elsewhere in the world?

WERTHEIM: Well, I think the United States has reacted in an overly aggressive manner to the 9/11 attacks. It was, I think, right to use force to punish those who attacked us on 9/11. And in fact, what the United States has mainly done through trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives, thousands of our service members who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, is engaged in missions that were not important to the security of the United States and have had a detrimental effect on our own democracy here at home. So I think what Biden seems to be attempting to do is to turn the page on the post-9/11 wars. And I think, obviously...

CORNISH: OK.

WERTHEIM: It's a difficult thing to do.

CORNISH: That's Stephen Wertheim. He's a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this with us.

WERTHEIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.