Saturday, September 10, 2011


'A friend of mine gave me a puzzle and I want you to help me out.' I said to him, 'Is this the time for puzzles, Mohamed?' He said, 'Yes, I know, but no one else but you could help me.' He said, 'Two sticks, a dash and cake with a stick down. What is it?' I said, 'Did you wake me up just to tell me this?'

That was the telephone call from Mohamed Atta to Ramzi bin al-Shibh giving the date in code, after Ramadan, on a Tuesday so Congress would be in session, for carrying out what was then called the “planes operation”, conceived in 1995 by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

It is now 10 years since 9-11 - the cake with stick down and two dashes. I’m in Afghanistan. 115 miles from the camps where they trained. For the next three weeks, I'll be in Kandahar - the city where bin Laden authorized the operation - in 1998.

Almost none of Al Qaeda's original planners or leaders are still alive or free. Not Atta, not bin Laden, not Al-Shibh and not KLM. The franchise still exists and strives to be potent - and after the Arab Spring - relevant. It now appears long on intention and short on ability to carry out. But it still requires our vigilance and our use of force.

Similarly, the Taliban and criminal groups that we are fighting here today are very, very different than the Taliban we defeated in 2001. Most of today's fighters were 6, 8, 10 years old on 9-11. The date has no meaning to them. Their animus is rooted in a different narrative.

Of over 700,000 Afghan military age males (18 to 28) who could be participating in the insurgency, our best estimate is 12-15,000. Nearly 80% of the population rejects the Taliban and their aims. Even fewer welcome the "Sunni Arab" foreigners - Al Qaeda. But this is still a place of turmoil and instability. As they say, "you have the watches, but we have the time."

On this anniversary, I'm thinking about over 2 million Americans who have served in uniform and their families: 6236 of whom have given it all. The historic misuse of a world religion to justify vicious political aims. An estimated 1 million civilian deaths, 2977 of which were ten years ago today. An examination and re-affirmation of many of our nation's core values... and then, combat-decorated veterans who also have to take off their boots in the airport. The opportunity cost of three trillion dollars committed. And a generation-defining event that seems not to stop challenging us to fulfill the promise of America.

I'm also thinking today about a friend and classmate Mary Lou Hague, UNC ’96. She was working on the 89th floor of the South Tower. Radiant, generous, accomplished, fun-loving. With entirely too much life left to live.

Finally, I'm thinking about what you're supposed to tell your children. The shadow 9-11 casts over their lives. That we live in a great country and enjoy many blessings. But that it is a dangerous world. That their innocence isn't universal. That twenty or thirty years from now, they will have inherited some part of the legacy of how we responded. And at least for their sake, we have to keep honoring, learning, striving and building.

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