Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, the United States was forever changed. Four commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda. Two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another into the Pentagon, and the final one into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers.
Nearly three thousand people died in the attacks. The United States was left shaken, but not broken. President Bush assured the world that those who had organized the attacks would be brought to justice. In a drastic foreign policy move, Bush announced that the United States would go to war against terrorism itself. Bush stated clearly in an address to Congress, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” What followed was a dual invasion that would destabilize an entire region for decades, and a domestic agenda that would fundamentally change the role of the federal government.
The US took many precautions in the form of new domestic policies to better protect Americans from terrorism. One of the most noticeable changes was the introduction of new airport security measures aimed at preventing further hijackings. The keystone of this new agenda was Congress’ passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, which gave the US government unprecedented law enforcement powers. These powers allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap American citizens without a warrant. Thousands of people were called in for questioning about connections to the Middle East. Often, many of them were arrested without charge. Additionally, the Bush Administration established a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay to hold suspected terrorists: a source of much international criticism regarding US human rights abuses.
Within a month of 9/11, the Bush Administration, in cooperation with NATO, launched a bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bush justified the invasion by stating that the Taliban had been protecting Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s leader. After the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001, the US helped establish a functioning democracy in Afghanistan. The seeming stability of the Afghan government was offset by its corruption and unpopularity with the Afghan people. At the same time, the US began training a new Afghan Army and supplying it with weapons, vehicles, and logistical support. However, the Afghan Army had limited success against the Taliban insurgency without direct US armed involvement.
In April 2021, after twenty years of American occupation, President Biden announced the withdrawal of American personnel. He claimed that the American combat mission in Afghanistan was over, delivering on a treaty with the Taliban made by former President Trump. What followed was a complete and rapid collapse of the Afghan government and army. The Taliban regained control of the country by August 2021. Thousands of civilians, Americans and Afghans alike, rushed to the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul to escape the newly established Taliban regime. After twenty years of war, the Taliban had regained control and the US was in full retreat, in what many consider a national embarrassment.
Iraq was the second country to be invaded by the United States in the name of the war on terror. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was predicated on the assumption that Saddam Hussein was concealing and developing weapons of mass destruction. Further, there was speculation that Hussein had a connection to the attacks on 9/11. The evidence for this justification was thin. Ultimately, no such weapons or connections between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were ever discovered. The US stayed in Iraq until 2011, when President Obama tried to end the war after thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars. However, Obama was forced to send troops back into Iraq in 2014 after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized power over vast sections of Iraq. American troops eventually defeated nearly all the ISIS fighters, but the US maintained a military presence in Iraq.
In July 2021, President Biden announced that the US would begin to withdraw its troops from Iraq. This announcement has unsurprisingly sparked anxiety toward potential chaos similar to that in Afghanistan. In an interview with NPR, Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated that the fear of the vacuum left by the US, while devastating, might also be different from that in Afghanistan because “any vacuum that the United States leaves behind is going to be filled not by a capable, united force like Taliban, but rather, in Iraq, you have many competing forces… that the result might be either a civil war or the division of the country, neither which is a result that the United States can tolerate.” While it is possible that a US withdrawal from Iraq could lead to the rise of another extremist group, it seems more likely that Iraq would splinter into sectarian chaos similar to that of 2014.
In the wake of the attacks on 9/11, the United States invaded two countries on the premise of preventing terrorism. In both cases, the invaded countries ended up more exposed to terrorism, violence, and war. This is not to say that either Afghanistan or Iraq’s political situations were stable prior to the US invasions; both countries suffered greatly under their previous rulers. But, it is difficult to say if either country is better off after the US invasions. While a US effort to end these wars after 20 years is welcome news, there is still an underlying issue with US foreign policy. As stated by Foreign Policy, “One thing the United States has learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the military can win battles, but it cannot solve problems that are fundamentally political in nature.”
In many ways, the present-day United States is different from the nation following the 9/11 attacks. In other ways, it is not. The US is fearful, divided, and fighting an abstract ideological battle against an ill-defined enemy. It is clear that the Cold War-style method of invading a country to instill a regime favorable to the US has been unsuccessful in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also worth mentioning that a large portion of terrorist attacks on American soil have been carried out by American citizens: the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” Islamic terrorism remains a threat to American security, but it is important to treat threats of domestic far-right Americans just as seriously.
It is critical that the US adopts a new policy for combatting threats if it wishes to maintain its war against terrorism. The policy must focus on preventing situations that allow for the spread of terrorism, such as economic inequality, authoritarianism, and systemic disenfranchisement. This policy cannot merely be appeasement, as those who spread terror should answer for their crimes. But, given the climate of current international politics, it is important that the US adopt a new method.
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