The sky was clear and blue. The grey towers stood, each guarding and welcoming, on the gateway to the nation. Out of nowhere got here the affect, the blaze, the smoke — after which the towers had been gone. When the mud and flames lastly cleared, a brand new world had emerged.
The loss of life and destruction outlined that late summer time day and stay seared within the minds of those that lived by Sept. 11, 2001. From the ashes and wreckage rose a brand new America: a society redefined by its scars and marked by a brand new wartime actuality — a shadow darkened much more in latest days by the resurgence of fundamentalist Islamist rule within the far-off land that hatched the assaults.
This week, ABC Information revisits the 9/11 assaults and unwinds their aftermath, taking a deep take a look at the America born within the wake of destruction. “9/11 Twenty Years Later: The Longest Shadow” is a five-part documentary collection narrated by George Stephanopoulos. Episodes will air on ABC Information Stay every evening main as much as the twentieth anniversary of the assaults, from Sept. 6-10. The collection shall be rebroadcast in full following the commemoration ceremonies on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Half 3: Wars in a far-off land
“America is below assault,” White Home Chief of Employees Andy Card whispered into the ear of his boss, President George W. Bush, throughout a photo-op at a college in Florida. Moments earlier than, hijacked jetliners had careened into the World Commerce Heart’s Twin Towers in New York Metropolis.
The fallout would mobilize a part of a brand new era of Individuals to reply the decision of obligation — and be a part of a pair of “endlessly wars” half a world away.
Amongst those that felt the pull was lately retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer Dan O’Shea. The shock of 9/11 would imply rejoining the Navy. O’Shea had no illusions about what would lie forward: “Everybody felt like this was the mission that needed to be achieved,” he mentioned.
At Columbia College, Loren Crowe was taking his seat in a freshman calculus class when the primary aircraft made affect simply seven miles to the south. The assaults galvanized his resolve to hitch the U.S. Military. He ultimately endured two deployments in Afghanistan as an infantry officer.
“My complete grownup life has been spent within the shadow of the Twin Towers falling,” Crowe informed ABC Information lately. “I gave up my time, my youth, my well being.”
For Dave Sharrett, an English instructor in Northern Virginia, the 9/11 assaults provoked a distinct response — considered one of deep dread when his son, a tenacious teenage soccer standout who bore his personal identify, David H. Sharrett II, would observe his deep want to serve America by becoming a member of the navy.
“I’d be pondering at the moment, ‘The worst factor that would ever occur to me can be if my baby was taken from me,'” Sharrett recalled.
The 9/11 assaults altered the destiny of all three — Crowe, O’Shea, and Sharrett — and a whole lot of hundreds of others who joined the protracted fights. As those that served mirror on the previous 20 years and grapple with the unfathomable prices of life, many surprise what the U.S. obtained in return. It is a query that has returned to the forefront in latest days as America’s engagement in Afghanistan got here to an in depth, amid chaos and a return to energy for the Taliban regime that 20 years in the past had given protected harbor to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We actually do need to take the time to assume, what precisely is our mission? What precisely are we making an attempt to perform? I do not assume a lot thought was given to any of these primary rules,” mentioned Leon Panetta, the previous protection secretary and CIA director who inherited the primary years of troubled invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Relatively than reaching the form of victory that I feel all people thought would occur, it blew up on all of us.”
Inside weeks of the 9/11 terror assaults, with the Pentagon nonetheless smoldering, American leaders plotted steps to carry these accountable to account. However who to battle? The place to start out?
The quick purpose of the Bush administration was twofold: to hunt justice for 9/11 and to safe the homeland. The choice to start a fight offensive in Afghanistan first “was not simply retaliation,” mentioned John Bellinger, a former Nationwide Safety Council chief lawyer within the Bush White Home, “however to stop extra assaults.”
The mission proved profitable — at first. Inside weeks of its invasion, American particular operations forces — together with Inexperienced Berets who parachuted in after which galloped down on horseback from the north — had dismantled Taliban management in Kabul. The Islamist militant group had established energy in Afghanistan towards the top of the Nineties and cast shut bonds with al- Qaeda and its chief, who was obsessive about forcing the USA out of Muslim lands.
Complicating issues was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. With the Afghanistan mission plowing forward in 2002, American leaders publicly claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was poised to acquire weapons of mass destruction — and maybe degree a recent spherical of assaults in opposition to the West.
“There was concern that Saddam Hussein was creating a relationship with al-Qaeda … that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction and would possibly contemplate sharing these with al-Qaeda,” recalled Alberto Gonzales, White Home counsel throughout Bush’s first time period. “And that was a deal breaker. That was a crimson line.”
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Dan O’Shea thought the operation was going effectively. He despatched a letter concerning the fall of Baghdad to a buddy and mentioned that the demise of Saddam Hussein was going to convey a brighter future to Iraqis.
“I mentioned, ‘Now we have an extended approach to go along with this, however, , we’re on our approach to getting this job achieved proper.’ And I look again now, and I learn that e mail, and I feel, ‘Dan, you had been naive on so many ranges’,” he informed ABC Information.
As deployments piled up for American servicemembers over time, the space between the ahead working base and the lounge expanded. The preliminary victories in Baghdad and the elimination of Saddam Hussein from energy gave approach to a protracted occupation — an limitless cycle of missions, fallen mates, and missed holidays at dwelling.
“You choose your deployments by — you are lacking what holidays. Are you lacking Thanksgiving, Christmas, or are you lacking Fourth of July? Those that imply rather a lot to veterans, particularly, Veterans Day and Memorial Day, after all,” mentioned O’Shea, who led hostage restoration efforts in Iraq and later was a counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan.
But O’Shea mentioned that always, whereas dwelling, he could not convey himself to attend vacation occasions with family and friends — as an alternative opting to spend them alone on the sofa.
In the meantime, the preliminary rationale for the Iraq invasion shortly fell aside.
The autumn of Baghdad had occurred swiftly. However the CIA-led seek for Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction got here up empty, as did the alleged relationship his regime had with al-Qaeda, years of investigation later discovered. Below interrogation by the FBI in 2004, the captured dictator mentioned his posturing earlier than the U.S. invasion was to persuade Iran — not America — that he had WMDs in order that they’d not understand how weak Iraq was militarily. The 2 neighboring international locations had fought a conflict from 1980-1988.
“There was not good intelligence,” mentioned Card, Bush’s chief of employees. “One of many issues we realized going into Iraq is that we didn’t have good intelligence.”
The Bush White Home confronted accusations of deceptive the general public concerning the weapons of mass destruction. A 2008 Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded that Bush administration officers who sought to hyperlink the Iraqi authorities to al-Qaeda had been “not substantiated by the intelligence.” Bush himself later conceded that he “had a sickening feeling each time I considered” the failure to search out weapons of mass destruction.
“Nobody was extra shocked and offended than I used to be once we did not discover the weapons,” he wrote in his memoir, “Determination Factors.”
Critics mentioned that along with not being guided by intelligence, the administration made misplaced international coverage assumptions about Iraq — and the implications had been immense. Invading Iraq redirected sources resembling U.S. Military Particular Forces groups from Afghanistan, earlier than al-Qaeda and the Taliban had been totally neutralized and Osama bin Laden had been killed.
“Beginning an entire new conflict in Iraq at a time that we had been preoccupied in Afghanistan … I do assume it resulted in stretching ourselves too skinny and taking our eye off the ball,” mentioned Bellinger.
Moreover, missteps by the U.S. navy started to undermine its sympathetic picture on the world stage. In 2004, revelations of torture and sadism on the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq prompted shock and anger each domestically and overseas. Pictures exhibiting U.S. servicemembers abusing and humiliating Iraqis incarcerated on the jail sparked scandal.
“When these pictures got here out from the jail, that was an absolute earthquake of an occasion,” mentioned Martha Raddatz, ABC Information’ chief world affairs correspondent. “It modified issues. It modified the world’s opinion of what the American navy was doing there and the way they had been treating Iraqis.”
“When Abu Ghraib occurred, I used to be shocked and embarrassed and mortified,” mentioned Card.
As American troops failed to search out weapons of mass destruction — leaving the Bush administration’s predicate for conflict to slide away — an al-Qaeda-led insurgency set in, inflicting a climbing price of U.S. casualties by the summer time of 2003, adopted by mass-casualty bombings because the nation descended into sectarian warfare.
Again in Afghanistan, American forces obtained slowed down constructing short-lived relationships with native tribal leaders, offering safety for U.S.-led farming tasks and the digging of wells — all in an effort to win so-called hearts and minds. The allied mission taken over by NATO skidded as efforts to confront Taliban strongholds in outlying areas garnered few outcomes — and prompted substantial American casualties — because the navy pushed additional and additional out from the capital of Kabul.
Mission drift set in by 2010, when President Barack Obama’s troop surge yielded few tangible outcomes. Crowe remembered receiving orders on the time to only “maintain on.”
“If I had any high-minded beliefs about becoming a member of the Military or, , preventing for nation and democracy, I had provided that up most likely earlier than we even hit nation,” Crowe mentioned.
Trying again at his deployments within the Pech Valley, removed from the dusty streets of Kandahar the place al-Qaeda plotted the 9/11 assaults, Crowe struggles to establish a rationale for the missions he led there — an opinion shared by numerous different “Joes” who would speak about fight “down-range and out of doors the wire.”
“No person ought to have died there. No person wanted to die there. I do not assume I ever noticed a better strategic objective for being there,” Crowe mentioned. “‘Maintain on’ shouldn’t be a cause to ship folks internationally to take gunfire.”
Many others by no means got here again: Greater than 8,500 U.S. and NATO service members died in Iraq and Afghanistan preventing the Struggle on Terror. Amongst lots of those that survived, the overall collapse of Afghanistan’s authorities and its defeat by the Taliban final month — with televised scenes of the helicopter evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul mirroring the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam — have strengthened a way of anger and confusion.
“The troops who fought the ‘endlessly wars’ have grappled with questions over what it was all for — much more in order they watched the photographs of Afghanistan’s fall nearly 20 years after the 9/11 assaults that began the wars,” mentioned James Gordon Meek, an ABC Information reporter who, as a newspaper correspondent, was embedded with U.S. and Afghan particular operations forces throughout deployments.
“Fight veterans try to ‘decide up the items,’ as one mentioned, to heal their wounds, each seen and invisible, having spent their youth and spilled their blood within the mountains and the poppy fields, metropolis streets and desert sands,” Meek mentioned.
Others say they’ll by no means be complete after shedding a liked one in wars they battle to understand.
Highschool English instructor Dave Sharrett raised three sons along with his spouse Vicki, and was making ready to retire after 30 years on the job. On January 16, 2008, he was educating Shakespeare’s Othello — a dialogue of “the nice rivalry of the ocean and skies” — when he obtained an pressing name from the varsity’s foremost workplace.
His oldest son, at age 26, had joined the U.S. Military and volunteered for air assault coaching, and was assigned to the one hundred and first Airborne Division which deployed to Iraq in late 2007.
A household buddy ready for him within the workplace delivered the information — Pfc. David Hastings Sharrett II had been killed in motion close to Balad, Iraq.
That evening Sharrett emailed Meek, the reporter and considered one of his former college students: “Oh my buddy. Dave was killed whereas on patrol in the present day. My god.”
Quickly after, troopers from Sharrett’s son’s platoon mentioned there had been a cover-up. For 4 years, Sharrett and Meek teamed as much as examine the incident.
“Cowl-ups within the navy are not often uncovered,” Meek mentioned. “Discovering accountability is even rarer as a result of the reality usually will get buried with the lifeless.”
Their efforts in the end led to 3 Military investigations, which concluded that in a gunfight with al-Qaeda insurgents, Pfc. Sharrett was shot and left for lifeless — not by the enemy, however by his personal lieutenant, who then left aboard a helicopter. The commander, who claimed to not bear in mind the incident, was later promoted.
“What did the Military do?” Sharrett requested. “The Military determined, in its infinite knowledge, to offer this man a go and to cowl this up and shield all people within the chain of command.”
A drone video later confirmed that Sharrett survived an preliminary ambush by a bunch of insurgents. However as he fled the gunfight — capturing down one rebel and taking hearth from others — he was shot by the unnamed officer, then fell to the bottom inside an arm’s attain. The officer then boarded a helicopter headed for a fight hospital.
“His lieutenant … shoots him point-blank, fakes an damage, will get on a helicopter, flies away, leaves Dave mendacity on the battlefield wounded, the place he proceeds to bleed for 90 minutes,” Sharrett mentioned.
Solely after information reviews emerged detailing Pfc. Sharrett’s loss of life and the cover-up did the Military take away the officer from active-duty service. The Military additionally revoked his service award — a coveted Fight Infantry Badge.
“They left me behind, completely, and his brothers behind,” Sharrett mentioned.
For Individuals again dwelling, the loss of life of Osama bin Laden in 2011 marked a turning level within the wars — a much-needed justification for the blood spilled and the sources squandered. However for the women and men waging conflict, the turning level ended up that means little.
“It was one of many more unusual days of my life when completely nothing modified,” Crowe mentioned. “The deployment went on as scheduled.”
In mid-August of this 12 months, as Loren Crowe watched Taliban insurgents re-take Kabul, years of pent-up frustration set in.
“Twenty years of conflict,” he mentioned. “Somewhat over a month after the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, and we’re proper again the place we began 20 years in the past. Everybody ought to have seen this coming.”
Dave Sharrett nonetheless struggles to reply one easy query: What did his son die for?
“The conclusion about going over there’s, what a waste of a life,” Sharrett mentioned this week. “I am simply being sincere.”
“If I used to be sitting in entrance of a bunch of politicians who had been considering doing, this I would say, ‘Let me let you know my story. Do not let this ever f***ing occur once more.’ And I feel I would go away the ‘f***ing’ in there for emphasis. And I imply that,” he mentioned.
ABC Information’ Jenny Wagnon Courts, Alexandra Myers and Olivia Rubin contributed to this report.