13 September 2019
12 September 2019

It was the darkest day in American history.

No one who was alive on September 11, 2001 will ever forget the images: the planes hitting two iconic New York skyscrapers almost in slow motion… the crumbling concrete… the stench and sight of rubble and death.

Two hijacked airliners creating chaos in Manhattan… one more ramming into the walls of the Pentagon… a third — the terrorists overcome by brave passengers — plunging into a field in Pennsylvania.

I was a member of the White House press corp as the horrific events of 9-11 began to unfold. I remember being ordered out of my basement broadcast booth by a guard and told to leave the grounds as fast as possible. “Run!” he screamed.

Evacuated reporters and photographers waited on a street corner nearby, trying to reach our newsrooms on cellphones that would not work because there were just too many people in the capital city frantically trying to make calls at the same time.

Occasionally one of us would get through and would shout out headlines relayed by an editor — one tower was down… then two… then we learned the Pentagon was struck.

We didn’t have much to add. The president was in Florida on a trip pegged to his education policy and eventually was monitoring events from the sky in Air Force One. A few aides in Washington provided what little they could to us in the way of information. And perhaps our best source was a spokesman for the local DC fire department, who drove by and was able to confirm that no city targets had been hit.

Hours later, I walked with two colleagues (one of them my future husband) down the deserted streets of Washington to my office. Deserted, that is, except for military tanks and transports. The three of us looked at each other and whispered: “we are at war.”

Indeed we were.

Days later, President George W. Bush stood by a pile of broken concrete and twisted metal where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. He lifted a bullhorn to his lips and spoke to rescue teams at the site about America’s pain. When one worker shouted out that he could not hear the president, Bush replied at the top of his lungs:

“I can hear YOU!  The rest of the world hears you! And the people —- and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon!”

That was September 14th, 2001. Less than a month later, on October 7th, the U.S. military, with support from Britain, began bombing targets in Afghanistan — moving against members of the terrorist group al-Qaida and the Taliban regime.

It became America’s longest war. Today, there are young men and women fighting there who were only teenagers on the day of the 9-11 attacks.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to end the war and bring them all home.

And to those who had followed the conflict for years, there was one big hopeful sign: the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad  — a highly respected Afghan-American diplomat —as Trump’s chief negotiator.

For months, Khalilzad met with Taliban leaders in private in Qatar and eventually word got out that there might be some sort of agreement in the works — an “agreement in principle,” as the envoy put it.

He also stressed that any deal would need President Trump’s approval. And by late August, it seemed that might actually happen.

But there were differences among the president’s top advisors — some backed the plan and some vehemently opposed it.

Then Trump the showman kicked in. He suggested inviting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Washington. The idea was to bring Ghani into the talks and get him to sign on.

Afghanistan’s president and the Taliban could then wrap up the negotiations and Trump would be the ultimate deal-maker.

And then Donald Trump came up with an even more dramatic idea. Why not hold the talks at Camp David — the US presidential retreat that has hosted kings, presidents and prime ministers?

The whole idea percolated behind closed doors until, seemingly out of nowhere, Trump declared the whole thing dead in a weekend twitter storm — publicly  announcing and then cancelling the proposed talks at Camp David in one tweet.

He linked the decision to an attack by Taliban forces in Kabul that killed an American soldier and 11 civilians:

“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?  They didn’t, they only made it worse!  If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these important talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” read the presidential post.

It was an unusual and rather dramatic departure from traditional diplomacy to say the least. And once again,  the twists and turns of the Trump administration’s foreign policy raised questions here and abroad.

Some wondered why the death of one solider — albeit a tragedy — was enough to derail the talks when the deaths of thousands of Afghans earlier in 2019 and more than a dozen other Americans was not.

And then there were big questions about timing and place.

Many pondered the propriety of inviting Taliban leaders with American blood on their hands to a destination as “sacred” in U.S. presidential history as Camp David.

And  they asked why Trump would ever agree to host such a meeting on September 8th as the nation was getting ready to mark the passing of 18 years since the 9-11 attacks.

As that milestone approached, the violence in Afghanistan continued unabated. The bloodshed there is not just part of our past. It is part of our present.

Trump now declares the negotiations are “dead,” although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others maintain there is still a flicker of hope that they might be resumed.

Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are in the crosshairs and American troops are continuing to die.

18 years and counting.

On September 11th, we remember.



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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