September 11: the consequences of the war on terror

September 11 New York United States

Twenty years ago, terrorists challenged the world power United States. The wounded nation declared a “war on terror.” The world will have to grapple with the consequences for much longer.

Twenty years have passed since the September 11 attacks. At Ground Zero in New York stand the towers of a new World Trade Center, with a monument to the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks that once struck the heart of the United States and the world. The city has recovered after the shock of the attacks on the Twin Towers: it has more inhabitants than in 2001 and, until the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy was booming.

But nothing is the same as then. Not only in the United States, but also in large parts of the Middle East or Afghanistan. When a terrorist attack recently killed some 170 Afghans and more than a dozen US soldiers during the evacuation operation at the Kabul airport, the local branch of the “Islamic State” claimed responsibility for the act. This organization did not even exist 20 years ago, when the “war on terrorism” began. But its appearance is closely linked to this war and how it was fought. 

“We know very well that the rise of the Islamic State was a direct result of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003,” explains Bernd Greiner. In an interview with DW, the German historian explains that much of the first generation of IS fighters came from Saddam Hussein’s former army. “The US dissolved it overnight. This left hundreds of thousands of young people on the streets with no job prospects, which is fertile ground for radicalization.” 

September 11 in New York

The war started with carpet knives

In 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, a symbol of economic power. They attacked the Pentagon, the center of military power. They caused a national trauma with their mass killings. And all this they had done with nothing more than carpet knives with which they turned commercial aircraft into weapons. The operations were led by a Saudi named Osama bin-Laden from a tent in Afghanistan. An unprecedented humiliation for a country that was perhaps at the zenith of its power at the time, which felt almost invulnerable a dozen years after winning the Cold War and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The United States reacted with dismay and pain and counted on the solidarity of the whole world. The country reacted with anger and found understanding. A limited action or even a special forces operation like the one that took place 10 years later, when Al Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden was killed in Pakistan, was ruled out by the US administration. For the first time in NATO history, the body declared a collective defense status in the alliance. In a military action legitimized by the UN Security Council as an act of self-defense, the Taliban of Afghanistan were overthrown in a few months.

When George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, there was no such legitimation. There were only false accusations about Saddam Hussein’s ties to the 9/11 terrorists and equally false accusations that the Iraqi dictator was producing weapons of mass destruction.

The “essential nation” demonstrates its power

After 9/11, many American politicians saw an opportunity to show the world that the United States was the “indispensable nation” of the world, says American historian Stephen Wertheim in an interview with DW. “And they demonstrated their ‘essential’ by trying to remake a whole country and a whole region.”

When Henry Kissinger, for example, was asked by George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, why he supported the Iraq war, his response was, “Because Afghanistan was not enough.” America’s radical opponents in the Muslim world wanted to humiliate America, “so we have to humiliate them.” Historian Stephen Wertheim concludes that Iraq was not so much a threat as a stage.

The “war on terror” proclaimed by President Bush had become a war without limits. A war “that was not precisely defined, neither temporally nor geographically. And it was fought globally,” as Johannes Thimm, an expert on the United States at the Berlin-based Science and Politics Foundation (SWP), explains.

World public opinion reacted with consternation when the Wikileaks dissemination platform revealed the true face of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010. And with the publication of the video “Collateral Murder”, it provided compelling evidence of the murder of civilians in Baghdad.

An eight trillion dollar mistake?

According to “Cost of War,” a project at Brown University in Providence, the 20-year “war on terrorism” has cost the United States an unimaginable $8 trillion. With this money, Joe Biden’s infrastructure program could easily be paid for multiple times over. Regardless of the consequences for the rest of the world, Bernd Greiner opines: “The US has massively harmed itself with these insane expenditures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“There are so many other worthy efforts to which the United States could have directed its vast resources,” sighs the American historian Stephen Wertheim, “rather than responding destructively to the attack of September 11.”

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