By the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States was considered virtually invulnerable. Not only were they the only superpower to remain on the world stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier, but the United States had become even more dominant, if at all, compared to the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia had shrunk to an economy smaller than Portugal's. Europe was internally concentrated and quarreled over monetary union. Japan's once thriving economy had flattened. And China was still just a rising tiger. Even the Roman Empire at its height did not live up to the economic, military, and technological domination of the United States over the world, wrote Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. In a famous book from 1987 The rise and fall of the great powers, Kennedy had argued that the United States was in decline, but as the new century began, he changed his mind: “Nothing ever existed like these power differences; nothing."
Despite the terrible trauma of what happened later that morning – the worst attack on US soil ever – Washington’s response for the next two months only confirmed US dominance. After the Taliban refused to extradite September 11th, al-Qaeda, the United States attacked Afghanistan – but in a new way that completely stunned the militants. Equipped with GPS navigators and laser aimers to help you "colour” Taliban troops on the ground, a handful of CIA officers and special forces carried in powerful intelligent bombs that decimated the Taliban. Survivors rushed to the mountains. Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his terrorists fled with them to their mountain hill at Tora Bora. With the closing of the noose, it seemed to some US officials that the nascent "war on terror" was almost won. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer responsible for the operation, later told me in an interview – and was recorded in his 2005 book: Broken jawr: The attack on bin Laden and al-Qaida – bin Laden was overheard on the radio and asked his followers for forgiveness. Berntsen quickly sent a message back to Washington asking for more troops, saying, "Let's kill this baby in the crib." In just a few months, "we could have had the entire al-Qaida command structure," said Berntsen.
It was then that things began to go terribly wrong for Washington.
Hiding in the mountains, bin Laden is said to have asked his fighters to pray – and at least for him a kind of miracle happened. Distracted by their plans to invade Iraq and determined to leave a "small footprint" in Afghanistan, the White House and the US Department of Defense refused to storm troops to encircle the captured Al Qaeda terrorists of the greatest military errors in recent US history. ”Bin Laden fled to Pakistan and disappeared for nearly 10 years. Then came US President George W. Bush's disastrous diversion that left Afghanistan wide open to a Taliban resurgence. The Iraq occupation, with US troops now exposed on the ground, also turned out to be a tutorial for jihadists in a new kind of asymmetrical warfare against the overwhelmed superpower, waged by smaller, more stealthy militant groups with novel weapons such as improvised explosive devices who have favourited the United States' Worst Vulnerabilities. Many of these tactics then spread back to Afghanistan from Iraq. Ultimately, the Taliban renewed themselves in the vacuum left by the otherwise occupied Americans and used these asymmetrical guerrilla methods to achieve a long-term strategic goal of outlasting Washington.
Finally, on August 31, the resurrected Taliban chased the United States out of the country. The breathtaking 10-day takeover by the militants left Washington humiliated and, as US President Joe Biden declared in a speech that day, "ended an era of great military operations to recreate other countries". This new approach now encompasses the entire Middle East: in late July, Biden also announced that the US military would return to a training role in Iraq by the end of the year, apparently in preparation for departure.
As a result, no one celebrates the 20th anniversary of September 11th more than Islamic militants around the world. Four U.S. presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Biden – were unable to defeat the Taliban, a force that is reportedly only 75,000 people. Tired of the conflict, the last three US presidents are determined to withdraw from Central Asia and the Middle East. This had been al-Qaeda’s main target all along, starting with bin Laden who said he wanted to drive the "crusaders" out of the region. The Islamist celebration will go well beyond the rifles fired by the Taliban on August 31.
"Every jihadist group on the planet is massively upset that this small group, the Taliban, survived the infidel United States," said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.
Taliban gunmen maintain control of the Kandahar-Herat Highway near Kandahar, Afghanistan on October 31, 2001, amid the US-led air campaign in Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks. BANARAS KHAN / AFP via Getty Images
A boy carries Taliban flags to sell in the Karte Mamorin area of Kabul on August 22 amid the US exodus from Afghanistan 20 years later. HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP via Getty Images
Biden and his team haven't really dealt with this gritty new psychological reality. And Biden's credibility around the world has clearly taken a heavy blow, although he appears to be denying it. The President repeats over and over that he was right, just as he did portrayed his two-week airlift of about 120,000 people from Afghanistan as a kind of victory rather than a lazy retreat that it was. "No nation, no nation has ever done anything like this in all of history," boasted Biden in his August 31 speech. He added that the time has come for the United States to take on new challenges: “We are in serious competition with China. We are dealing with Russia on several fronts. We are facing cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. "
True enough. But the ultimate irony could be that Biden's desire to move on, the United States is now actually closer to being back in first place: facing a jihad-infused Afghanistan and an emboldened Taliban to rule the country, just as it was in the morning September 11, 2001. Biggest Difference: The United States is no longer the awesome superpower it once was. And others, not just jihadists, will try to take advantage of this – especially China and Russia.
"The impact of this on our reputation and our ability to retain allies for future purposes is simply enormous," said Kilcullen, author of a 2020 book entitled The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West , an in-depth study of The Loss of Relative Power in the United States Over the Past Decades. “For the foreseeable future, every time Americans say to someone, 'Do what we want or we will target you with our military,' the answer will be, 'Which military? You mean the one with whom you just lost the war with the Taliban? ‘"
Biden and the US national security apparatus have seen some significant victories in the past 20 years. Bin Laden was eventually killed in a US operation, as were Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the original leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the U.S. homeland has not suffered an overseas attack since September 11. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, decimated by US attacks on their leadership, are just shells of their former selves – for the moment. The United States, which is still the dominant military and economic power in the world, is also not in the process of withdrawing its troops from important bases such as those in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Many diplomats and security experts say that by rejecting the idea that the United States can occupy and transform foreign lands, Biden is right to explain an important strategic shift away from the overuse of military power.
"Part of what we did wrong was that we thought we could do too much with our hard power," said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former US ambassador with extensive experience in Afghanistan. “There is a certain place to use hard power against certain hard targets that are carrying out terrorist activities. That can be valuable. What happened is that we tried to spread this hard force too widely because we thought it could help us change entire nations, and in doing so we made grave mistakes that actually produced more new terrorists. "
Indeed, foreign policy experts say that perhaps the only good thing about the past 20 years is that Washington has learned valuable new lessons about the dangers of military overextension, lessons reminiscent of a previous humiliation of the US: Vietnam. The common thread that connects Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan is that nationalist uprisings – whether the Viet Cong, Taliban or Iraqi jihadists – can usually outlast the patience of even the most powerful foreign occupiers. Former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh said, "You will kill 10 of us and we will kill one of you and in the end you will be exhausted." The Taliban liked to say, “You have the clocks, but we have the time.” The message was the same, and the lesson – that the United States should not “go in search of monsters to destroy,” in the words former US President John Quincy Adams – is one that two very different presidents, Trump and Biden, have now impressed on the American people. If the lesson is learned, it can prevent the kind of overconfidence that led to the Iraq invasion and Afghanistan's failed counterinsurgency policy, which for years has been touted by US officials as far more successful than it was.
It's a lesson all major powers had to learn up until the Roman Empire, which had its own problems overcoming unwieldy local insurgency, said Edward J. Watts, a historian at the University of California, San Diego. “If you want to go in, you have to make a commitment to be there for a very long time or even indefinitely. That is the lesson the US did not learn in Vietnam and Afghanistan. "
But the US must now expect the consequences. Bin Laden and his small band of followers managed to fight well beyond the terrorist leader's lifetime, well above al-Qaeda’s weight class – the Americans as Mujahideen once done to the Soviets. One of the papers found in bin Laden's Abbottabad building after his murder reads: wrote His ultimate goal was to "destroy the myth of American invincibility".
He was brilliantly successful in this, largely thanks to the hubris of his enemy.
Perhaps the ultimate irony was that George W. Bush and his Hawkish lieutenants, mostly Americans at the time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then Vice-President Dick Cheney were determined to demonstrate the invincibility of America after 9/11. A single reason for invading Iraq was never given, but it was clear that simply eliminating the Taliban was not enough for the Bush team. On the basis of many reports published since then, the administration wanted to send a message to the world that US power in itself was terrifying. The then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the dictator served as a practical figurehead for George W. Bush's new strategy: to conduct “pre-emptive strikes” against alleged terrorist states.
"The ease with which they got rid of the Taliban reinforced their feeling that our technological lead was so great that we could eliminate governments without destroying states," said Ivo Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO.
Confident – some would say arrogance – the Bush administration invented a flimsy (and ultimately false) case that Saddam was linked to al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Then George W. Bush marched against the advice of most of his allies and in spite of world opinion. The effect was the opposite of what he intended.
"The main mistake was the invasion of Iraq," Kilcullen said in an interview. “You can really date the decline of American military domination on this. That is the main mistake that drives the rest. "
The result was that the Bush administration Afghanistan made the gradually resurgent Taliban vulnerable and opened a Pandora's box of fresh Islamist terror against Washington by invading Iraq and conquering an occupying power in the heart of the Arab world. The US occupation of Iraq – and the often brutal way the Americans carried it out, with mass arrests and beatings of often innocent Iraqis ending up in Abu Ghraib jail or Camp Bucca – created a new Islamist threat, that of Zarqawi was led. As of 2015 Brookings Institution report at Camp Bucca put it this way: If prisoners "were not jihadists when they arrived, many of them were when they left". This Islamist movement in turn spread to Yemen, Somalia and North Africa and later transformed into the Baghdadi-led Islamic State. Born under the Iraq occupation, the Islamic State then metastasized back to Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, taking new forms and using new, smarter tactics.
Thus, the opening salvo of the invasion of Iraq – the infamous "Shock and Awe" campaign – actually marked "the culmination of the (US) high-tech, intelligence-led, precision strike model of battlefield dominance," wrote Kilcullen. “This type of war, which the US pioneered in 1991 (opening of the“ Smart Bomb ”era in the first Gulf War) and which everybody else, allies and enemies, had to reckon with ever since, began to develop from that point onwards. "
Instead, Americans would be ripped out of their smart bomb empyrean for the next two decades and forced to hurl it on the ground with all the new jihadist enemies they had spawned – at an enormous cost in life, body, treasure, and so on US patience.
American soldiers board a US Air Force C-130 plane at Baghdad International Airport in Baghdad on November 23, 2011 as the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq. Sebastian Meyer / Corbis via Getty Images
A flight crew prepares to load evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan on August 21. Taylor Crul / USA Air Force via Getty Images
Now these enemies have adapted. Jihadists merged with the landscape and the communities in which they operated making it harder to separate them from the general population, and after years of near-death experiences from drone and air strikes, they became "tougher, smarter, more stealthy and much more deadly" Time, ”wrote Kilcullen. The jihadists even developed their own technologies such as remote-controlled weapons and tactics such as the use of small autonomous cells to fight in scattered battlefields, which Kilcullen said the West could learn for itself.
As a result of US overwhelming power, "the damage that al-Qaeda has done pales in comparison to the damage we have done to ourselves," said Joseph Nye, a seasoned diplomat and renowned strategist at Harvard University. “By some estimates, nearly 15,000 American military personnel and contractors were killed, and the economic cost of the wars after September 11th was more than $ 6 trillion. Add to this the number of foreign civilians killed and refugees created, and the costs were enormous. "
Even some Democrats who have questioned Biden's hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan agree that Washington has gone too far strategically. "I think volumes will be written about our mistakes – Afghanistan will be almost a reference book on how not to do things in the future," said Democratic MP Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “One lesson is that we are really bad at nation building and we shouldn't waste money or time and our most precious resource, our people, building or enforcing a government in another country without the tradition or culture that is she supports. ”
James Dobbins, the first US envoy to Afghanistan after the Taliban and later special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, calls this 20-year period “the lost generation in American foreign policy”. And 9/11, he says, was the "trigger". From 1945 to 2000, he argues, every US president had significant foreign policy achievements, but four presidents have had almost none since then. Obama had achieved some important achievements, such as the nuclear pact with Iran and the Paris Agreement, but Trump reversed them. Why such a meager record over the past two decades? In part, says Dobbins, it was because every president since George W. Bush has tried to clean up his post-9/11 mess.
"The invasion of Iraq was probably the worst single decision in American foreign policy since 1776," said Dobbins. The reasons, however, also lie in the collapse of the national consensus, which was exacerbated by the domestic economic crises, in particular the Great Recession after 2008.
"There is a marked increase in a generation of people who do not believe in the American intent that has guided American foreign policy since World War II with the US as the main pillar of the international order," said Dobbins. “The answer goes back to increasing income inequality. We have a whole generation that has not seen the benefits of this world order flow to them, with 90 percent of the benefits of the international order flowing into the top 10 percent. "
Worse still, the rest of the world has recognized the United States' many stumbling blocks in the war on terror in those 20 years – and learned new ways to defy and humiliate the United States. China and Russia used the United States' two wetlands, Iraq and Afghanistan, to find new means to defy Washington. The Europeans, disgusted by Biden's unilateral withdrawal, are talking again about going their own strategic direction. And the danger is that rivals will continue to exploit US weaknesses.
One risk is that Beijing, recognizing Biden's reluctance to deploy the military on a large scale, could threaten Taiwan further – forcing the US president to overcompensate to demonstrate that he is not weak. "That could encourage Biden to support Taiwan more than we should," said Kilcullen.
The Iraq debacle was clearly a major strategic misstep, but other factors played a role in the turnaround in the US. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin understood that the United States was still focused on traditional military interference and stuck in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Putin found ways to combat Washington asymmetrically by operating in a "liminal" gray area that avoided detection and offered deniability, Kilcullen said. In practice, this meant using "little green men" – Russian activists who could not be clearly identified as Russian soldiers – to control Crimea in Ukraine. It also meant using covert methods to undermine US democracy; Kremlin agents exploited the US internal political divide by hacking the 2016 and 2020 elections and directing a fire hose of digital disinformation into the United States that further stirred up red-and-blue tensions. Because of Washington's overwhelming power abroad and the toxic divisions at home, the Kremlin no longer sees the United States as an undisputed superpower, but rather as a wounded giant, cut and pierced in innumerable places, whose democracy is failing. And Putin is undoubtedly planning to cut further.
China has taken a different approach, Kilcullen said, observing closely that, as shown, “the Western military in Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent at high-end technical combat, but fail massively in turning successes on the battlefield into successful ones Results outside of the narrow technological definition of war. "Beijing has attempted to exploit this weakness by expanding its definition of warfare to include economic and political weapons – for example, its global Belt and Road initiative. Kilcullen quotes one in his book Chinese strategists with the words that China must "be ready to wage a war that affects all areas of life of the countries involved and can be waged in a sphere that is not dominated by military action".
Much of this is in response to "repeated failures by the United States to convert battlefield victories into strategic success or to translate that success into better peace," wrote Kilcullen. Instead, the lone superpower has let itself be bogged down over the past two decades in a "seemingly endless series of continuous, inconclusive wars that have drained our energies while our rivals flourished".