No watershed in post-Cold War US politics and international affairs has been more remarkable than 9/11. It was a defining moment by virtue of its sheer enormity, and, thanks to modern media, the fact that we were able to re-live, again and again, that day of the deadliest terrorist attack by a foreign entity on US soil.
For the generation that watched this event unfold live on their screens, the horror of three planes crashing into the political and economic centers in New York and Washington, and a fourth being downed in rural Pennsylvania, left an extreme sense of vulnerability and fear, mixed with anger and, for many, a desire for vengeance. The 19 suicide hijackers, members of Al-Qaeda, not only claimed the lives of 2,977 citizens in their blind hatred of America and its people, but also altered the psyche of an entire nation.
The 20th anniversary of the attacks is also the beginning of the countdown for future anniversaries of America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. These two events are bound to remain linked together in perpetuity. It is impossible to exaggerate how painful were the shockwaves that went through American society as a consequence of 9/11, and the emotional impact was only added to by the bravery of the United Airlines Flight 93 passengers, whose actions surely prevented that fourth plane from being crashed on to the White House or Capitol Hill. Yet this understandable range of emotions should not have been allowed to rule the decision making process in the attack’s aftermath. The country’s leaders, under President George W. Bush, responded by opening a series of Pandora’s boxes that despite managing to avert further terrorist attacks of the same kind, have changed the character of the country, undermined its democratic foundations, and altered its relations with the world and its own approach to dealing with menacing nonstate actors.
The US, like most countries, is geared both perceptually and in its military preparedness toward addressing threats from other states. A group of hijackers who belonged to a terrorist organisation such as Al-Qaeda, who learned how to fly planes with the sole aim of crashing them, and with no attempt to spare their own lives, was an insurmountable challenge to the Western way of thinking. The unfortunate, and extremely misguided and damaging adoption of the term “global war on terrorism” created the wrong impression of a specific and well identified, state-like target, when what was necessary was not a conventional war but a campaign of counter-insurgency against a nonstate actor with limited capabilities, which — despite the damage that its distorted ideology and vicious intentions had proved capable of inflicting — was an enemy that required a more nuanced and selectively targeted approach, both in military terms and those of psychological-ideological warfare.
The unfortunate, and extremely misguided and damaging adoption of the term “global war on terrorism” created the wrong impression of a specific and well identified, state-like target, when what was necessary was not a conventional war but a campaign of counter-insurgency against a nonstate actor with limited capabilities.
Militant groups that resort to terrorism are small in numbers and limited in capabilities; however, it is their zeal, their indiscriminate methods and the sympathy and support they are able to draw on from considerable segments in society that turn them into the threat that they are. In most cases they do not pose an existential threat, and it is the excessive response that they are able to provoke that makes them appear more significant than they really are. The wish to eradicate Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan and elsewhere was a rational response. However, the full scale invasion of Afghanistan, which led to a 20-year failed exercise in nation building, sugar coated with the idea of spreading democracy, which cost America alone thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars every single day, and ended in humiliation and a complete loss of international credibility, caused more damage to the US than anything that any terrorist group could have ever inflicted. The global “war on terrorism” was also among the justifications for ousting Saddam Hussein by invading Iraq in 2003. That assertion was as flawed and baseless as the excuse of sending in troops to stop Iraq’s nuclear program. But those supposed justifications reflected the prevailing mood in Washington at the time, which led America to the point of invoking NATO’s article 5, which was originally designed during the Cold War to deter the military might of the Soviet Union, not to deal with irregular forces.
The battle with Al-Qaeda and its likes is more over hearts and minds than against a foreign military, and that is where most of the resources should have been diverted. It has been estimated that more than $8 trillion has been spent and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the post-9/11 wars. Yet the resentment toward the West, upon which extreme Islamist organisations thrive, has not abated, and Daesh is only one of its most dire manifestations. Moreover, renditions, lack of due process and inhumane treatment of inmates in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, torture, extrajudicial killings, and occupations have succeeded only in generating more anger among the world’s Muslims towards the West.
In the process, as in the case of the Patriot Act, the democratic values of the US itself have been compromised, and the racist-Islamophobic genie released from the bottle. The terrorist attacks of two decades ago have left a lasting and widespread anti-Islamic sentiment in the US, much of it incited and cynically exploited by politicians who thrive on driving a wedge between communities. This has become another element, and an important one, of the fragmenting social and political scene in both the US and Europe. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency programmes have a crucial role to play, but can be effective only when complemented with empowering those who oppose them from within, and those are the vast majority of Muslims caught between their fear of the extremists and their distrust of an America that instead of building a genuine dialogue with moderate Muslim countries and movements, is trying to impose its will and way of life on them. Had a mere fraction of the resources spent on the post-9/11 wars been diverted to building bridges with communities in these countries and ensuring that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, had been achieved, it would have contributed so much more to the security of the US than any amount of bombs and missiles could have ever achieved.
As controversial as was the abandonment of Afghanistan, it may be also an opportunity to revaluate the US-led response to the atrocities of 9/11. This can barely be seen as a glorious period in American history, its tolerance at home or its engagement and leadership abroad. But this may be good time for building not only military alliances, but partnerships and dialogue with Muslims at home and abroad.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg