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A test of the Tribute in Light rises above lower Manhattan, Sept. 7, 2011. A test of the Tribute in Light rises above lower Manhattan, Sept. 7, 2011, in New York (AP photo by Seth Wenig).

The Lessons of 9/11, El Salvador’s Bitcoin Experiment and More

Friday, Sept. 10, 2021

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When U.S. President Joe Biden initially chose the 20th anniversay of 9/11 as the deadline for ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, he probably expected the date’s symbolism to resonate more triumphantly. But in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the chaotic evacuation that followed, the remembrances of the losses from that day, but also from the years of war since then, have instead been infused with a poignant sense of wasteful futility.

The Attacks of 9/11 and the Pernicious Mirage of Victory

In her column this week, Candace Rondeaux examined the costs and lessons learned of the U.S. war on terror that followed 9/11.

  • Among the most important lessons, she writes, is the realization of the limits of military power to achieve U.S. objectives. The cost in U.S. treasure and more importantly lives lost in warzones across the Middle East and South Asia make it “fair to wonder where the boundaries lie for an American national security policy dictated by an insatiable quest for retribution.”
  • Worse still, after 20 years of the war on terror, the best the U.S. can hope for is to learn to live with terrorism, “adopting a strategy like that of Israel against Hamas, where ‘mowing the grass’ and decapitating extremist groups’ leadership will become a common feature of American national security strategy.”
  • The implications for great power competition are ominous, Candace argues, because similarly to the war on terror, “No one in Beijing, Washington or Moscow, however, seems to be able to define what winning looks like.”
  • To the contrary, on all the major common challenges facing humanity, there will be no “bright-line victories.” The best we can hope for is survival, for which a cooperative paradigm is more effective than a competition without victors.

Bukele Is Turning El Salvador Into a Bitcoin Lab Experiment

In her column this week, Frida Ghitis looked at Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s latest controversial move—the rollout of Bitcoin as legal tender, which is not only drawing criticism from abroad, but also from within the country, where Bukele nonetheless remains enormously popular.

  • Frida first looks at the political events of the past few weeks for context, particularly a Supreme Court ruling “that essentially overrode the constitution, allowing a president to seek consecutive reelection and thus opening a path for Bukele to extend his presidency.” That followed Bukele’s recent move to stack the court, using a parliamentary majority he won in March elections.
  • Against the backdrop of condemnation from the U.S. and other international partners, the controversial introduction of Bitcoin serves as a welcome distraction for Bukele. But unlike his other provocations, many of which have been met with approval by his supporters, making the volatile cryptocurrency legal tender has proven highly controversial in El Salvador, with a large majority opposed.
  • Bukele argues that the use of Bitcoin will save hundreds of millions of dollars in transaction fees on international remittances, which make up more than 20 percent of the country’s GDP. But in addition to Bitcoin’s volatility, which makes it risky as a store of value, the cryptocurrency’s lack of transparency makes it an attractive vehicle for money-laundering and corruption.
  • Frida concludes that if Bukele’s experiment with Bitcoin is unprecedented, his assault on democratic norms like judicial independence and the separation of powers is a familiar plot in the region, one that always ends badly.

Afghanistan Will Put Russia’s Regional Ambitions to the Test

And in a briefing Tuesday, Jeffrey Mankoff examined the impact of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Russia, which, despite Moscow’s schadenfreude over Washington’s humiliation, puts the Kremlin in a challenging position.

  • Although Russia has long talked about its privileged interests in the states of Central Asia that neighbor Afghanistan, Jeffrey writes, “it remains to be seen whether Moscow can actually play the role of regional pivot to which it has long aspired.”
  • Russia’s major interest is in making sure instability in Afghanistan does not spillover into Central Asia, whether through refugee flows, transnational terrorism or militancy. But while Moscow has stepped up security cooperation with regional governments in recent months, suspicion of Moscow and tensions among Central Asian states could prevent deeper coordination through the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
  • At the same time, Russia hopes to fill the vacuum left behind by the U.S. to become the regional powerbroker, both to advance a regional framework for resolving any residual conflict in Afghanistan, but also to promote economic integration with Russia.
  • Jeffrey concludes by pointing out that achieving all of these objectives “would require more resources than Russia’s leadership has thus far been willing to invest, and greater risk than it has been willing to take on.”

This Week’s Most-Read Article

Our top story by number of pageviews this week was Howard French’s weekly column, which looked at the recent coup in Guinea through the lens of the country and region’s post-colonial history, as well as Howard’s experiences there as a New York Times foreign correspondent and bureau chief. In it, Howard traces the trajectory of deposed President Alpha Conde, who failed to live up to his promises to put Guinea’s mineral resources to work for the population, while using a constitutional reform to sidestep term limits and extend his time in office.

I interviewed Conde, whom I had known when he was a perennial opposition figure, the last time I visited Guinea, in 2012, while researching my book, “China’s Second Continent.” I found a man who, though once famous for his ability to interrogate others about the way they wielded power, now seemed aloof and disdainful of journalists’ questions. His office, like so many presidential headquarters I’ve seen firsthand on the continent, seemed like a hive of shady characters angling for bribes and kickbacks.

What’s on Tap

And coming up next week, we've got:

  • A column by Stewart Patrick about how the fixation on the threat posed by fragile and failed states led the U.S. astray after the attacks of 9/11.
  • A briefing by Dina Esfandiary on the implications of the Taliban’s comeback in Afghanistan for neighboring Iran.
  • A briefing by Eraldo Souza dos Santos that explains how Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is using threats of a military coup to dictate the terms of the political debate ahead of next year’s elections.
  • And an in-depth article by Aaron Allen on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s complicated legacy and how it is shaping the race to succeed her in general elections later this month.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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