Commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks: A day of remembrance, a day of reckoning
This is not how the day marking the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States was expected to be commemorated, but unfortunately, the day has turned out to be not only a day of remembrance, but also of reckoning.
Like any other year, commemorative events remembering those who lost their lives in the horrific attacks will be held today, but the discussion in the wake of the day has been dominated by the recent events in Afghanistan. The most innocuous question has been: How have we come to this point? Detractors of the US and conscientious observers of US policies agree that the country has lost another war. For observers, the questions are how and why. It is not only the Afghanistan war they are referring to, but to a larger picture: Has the US lost the war it fought against terrorism for the past two decades? Did the war that President George W Bush began nine days after that attack in 2001 conclude with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, 2021? For the past decade, there has been intense discussion on the failure of the war, and the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul has become the most obvious symbol of that failure.
George W Bush, referring to the attackers, said on September 12, 2001: "The United States will use all resources to conquer this enemy. We will rally the world. We will be patient. We will focus, and we will be steadfast in our determination. This battle will take time and resolve. But make no mistake about it, we will win." Indeed, in the past two decades, four US presidents—George W Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden—remained steadfast in their defence of this "war", and there was no dearth of resources. The US has already spent at least USD 2 trillion, and another USD 4 trillion will be needed in the future to deal with the consequences of the war. At one point, most countries in the world extended their sympathy and support to the US. But it cannot be claimed that it has won the War on Terror.
It is important to recall that the nature and scope of this war was neither clearly stated, nor did one know how someone was being identified as an "enemy." In such an instance, "win" remains as elusive as the accomplishment of mission. The question raised in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs is important: What would it mean to win?
Terrorism is a strategy, which can be adopted by anyone at any point; yet, a war was declared against it by the US and its allies, leaving it to our imagination as to what is meant by the "War on Terror." To say that it was ambiguous is an understatement; it turned out to be an action to serve the geopolitical and economic interests of a few countries. That's why defence contractors profited from the US presence in Afghanistan more than the Afghans. There has been no clear answer in the past two decades as to what the strategy of the asymmetrical warfare should be. In Afghanistan, the war against terror was transformed from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, and then to the ambitious nation-building project. It is a classic example of a mission adrift.
Analysing the War on Terror exclusively through the experience of the Afghanistan war will be incomplete, if not erroneous. It is under the pretext of the War on Terror that Iraq was invaded, violating international laws and norms. Besides, there have been indirect military interventions—drone strikes, for example—in various countries against "terrorists," which have cost the lives of innocent people making these attacks counterproductive.
The US and the UK were not the only partners of the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT). Many countries were quick to join the bandwagon as their rulers saw it fit their own interests. In its name, rulers of various countries, particularly the authoritarians, have grabbed more power, increased surveillance over common citizens, and enacted laws limiting the fundamental rights.
On September 20, 2001, George Bush declared the war and drew a line in the sand: "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make—either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." The seed of a long-lasting division was sowed with these words. This division didn't stay within the purview of US foreign policy; instead, it permeated society. Islamophobia, which had existed for long within the US society, reached a new height. The loyalty and patriotism of Muslims were questioned. In the long run, this attitude has contributed to the pernicious divide in US politics, the rise of white supremacist extremism, and anti-Muslim hatred.
The notion of such division has proliferated beyond the boundaries of the US. Other rulers, many with dubious track records, have used and continue to use this idea. No matter how much they and their supporters oppose US foreign policy, no matter how loudly they speak out against the alleged War on Terror, their penchant for such policy is easily discernible. Their everyday rhetoric and behaviour reveal their preference for a contrived division, a tendency to construct enemies, and an eagerness to silence dissent. In this way, the concept of War on Terror has gained a life of its own, and assumed different forms in different countries to justify the violation of democracy and human rights. Whether terrorists exist in society has made little difference, and where violent extremists have been present, it has been used as an excuse to give rise to a culture of fear through legal and extralegal measures.
The measures taken to combat terrorism have become a blessing to domestic and transnational terrorist organisations, as these measures have helped them recruit new foot soldiers. The rise of Islamic State, in Iraq in 2014, is a case in point. This is not to suggest that such terrorist organisations were absent prior to 2001. The September 11 attacks and the previously growing strength of al-Qaeda, building bases in Afghanistan, providing training to recruits from different countries and launching attacks on US interests in various countries since 1993, prove that terrorist activities were a reality on the ground. However, whether their strengths were overrated, the measures taken against them were proportional to the threat they posed, and the adopted strategy was correct or not is an open question and deserves criticism.
Some argue that the GWOT has decimated al-Qaeda as a centralised organisation capable of mounting large-scale attacks on US interests. Various violent organisations inspired by al-Qaeda ideology have emerged in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, but they do not pose any imminent threat to the security of the US. This is portrayed as a success. Another argument is that the US has not been a victim of any major terrorist attack since 9/11. But are these successes worth the money spent and the 7,000 American lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Twenty years after 9/11, a new reality has emerged in the wake of the humiliating defeat of the US in Afghanistan. After the attacks in 2001, we became accustomed to describing the present era as "post-9/11." Perhaps in 2021, we are entering a new era which can be described as "post-post-9/11." The future role of the US in global politics and the geo-strategic global game will be partly shaped by what it learns from the events, strategies, and failures of the last two decades. Without the reckoning, it will be difficult for the US to move forward. September 11, 2021 should be the point of departure of the reckoning.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, and the president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).