As the hands of the great chronograph of time strike to symbolise twenty-one years since that day of sheer terror in downtown New York, the world reflects upon the new type of war that has enkindled the world for all these years. As the haunting wails of victims pulsated across the globe, the extremist Islamist brand of terror took the centre stage of destruction.
9/11 marks a tragic memory of loss for the American people. People gathered at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan to observe an annual ritual of remembering the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost in the terror attacks. The crowd raised the popular slogan, “Never Forget” to pay tribute to the precious lives lost and to the resolve of the American nation against terrorism. Army General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remembered it as “an attack on the American nation as a whole” and the failure of terrorists in destroying the freedom of the nation. The attacks on 9/11 reflected a growing threat to the peaceful community of the world.
Bin Laden’s model of terror resembled an idiosyncratic fusion of politico-religious fundamentalism as well as anti-Americanist sentiment. The newspapers on 9th September 2001 reported, “America is under attack”. People watched in disbelief as the most powerful country in the world seemed vulnerable and helpless in the face of such blatant provocation. The unipolar world power of the 90s was struck in the heart by an ideological fiend of terror. The very magnitude of severity with which the mighty Global Power was assaulted shocked the ends of the earth. 9/11 is still regarded as the single deadliest attack on US soil.
As al-Qaeda openly and brazenly provoked the US, the latter vindictively declared a counterattack against al-Qaeda and their organisational haven in Kabul – the Taliban. Then-President George W. Bush announced that the US will “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them”. This announcement materialised through the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom on October 07 of the same year, when US Army Special Forces, colloquially known as the ‘Green Berets’ were deployed into Afghanistan to decimate the al-Qaeda operational infrastructure and network. The operation also aimed to oust the Taliban government from Afghanistan due to the very national security threat that the country posed to the US. This operation which was launched with a clear aim in mind, soon turned into an ambiguous and controversial war – famously dubbed the War on Terror.
The War on Terror became the longest war ever fought by the US spanning over twenty years. The Taliban regime collapsed a month after the attack and Bin Laden fled Afghanistan and remained in hiding for close to a decade. When the war completed its first ten years, Bin Laden was finally struck down by Seal Team Six (DEVGRU) in 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With that, the primary goal of the US was accomplished which was to rout both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. At this stage in 2011, the US had planted the pro-US government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
The remainder of their operations in Afghanistan was fought without any particular goals to accomplish – something that had been up for debate for several years with multiple high-profile figures advocating for withdrawal. The US claimed that its goal was to create a strong democratic government in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can never roll back into power. Fast forward to 2021, the Taliban rolled back to power stronger than before and with the mighty brunt of the US arsenal courtesy of the Biden-Harris administration.
The War on Terror was jointly supported by many countries. Although combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and other affiliated regions have greatly ceased, other aspects of the war like the prevention of financing terrorism persist. The successes of this war are plentiful on the operational dimension; however, it has also garnered multitudes of criticism on accusations of aggravating the threat. Various proxy campaigns, especially under the Obama administration have led to Made in USA weaponry getting into the hands of insurgents, terrorists and radicals. In the Syrian theatre, US funding and weapons strengthened rebel groups against President Bashar al-Assad, yet it irresponsibly led to the arming of the Islamic State in the region.
Due to the War in Afghanistan, the US not only faced external condemnation but internal criticism as well. As the war prolonged, the cost of the war increased over time, in the form of both human and financial losses. The US spent over USD 2.31 trillion with over 243,000 deaths in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, neologistically referred to as AfPak within US foreign policy circles. This made the American public ‘war-weary’ and the war goals were seen as unworthy in the face of human and financial costs. On the other hand, the international community started calling out the US as this war had no end in sight. One of the most criticised aspects of war was the use of drones by the US. UN experts expressed this concern by calling drone strikes ‘counter-productive’ as they do more harm than good owing to heavy civilian casualties. Obama’s warfare strategy incorporated the launching of thousands of drone and air strikes in war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia, killing scores of civilians in the process. In addition, the countries whose territories were used in waging this war became the frontline against terrorists. For instance, a report by Nobel prize-winner concluded that around 80,000 people were killed, both directly and indirectly, in Pakistan alone as a result of the war on terror.
On the positive side, 9/11 and the War on Terror rapidly mobilised the Western security community to realise dormant terror cells within their borders. This enabled the dismantling of various foreign terrorist networks including Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the mid-2000s, the Western security apparatus dismantled multiple funding links between the LTTE international network and the LTTE terrorists in Sri Lanka’s North and East. Numerous LTTE front organisations that disguised as cultural and charity institutions were raided, investigated and proscribed for terrorist financing, arms procurement and war taxes. Among these, the World Tamil Movement (Canada) and World Tamil Coordinating Committee (US) received much of the limelight.
The underlying impetus that al-Qaeda used to garner support from Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia was the prevalence of anti-Americanist sentiments. The Muslim world sees the US as a foreign force that attempts to enforce its rule over smaller nations. The unilateral invasion of Iraq, wars in Afghanistan, and the non-resolution of the Palestine issue are some of the major reasons for such sentiments. When the propagation of the thesis of ‘Clash of Civilisations’ was carried out by Western intellectuals and disseminated across Western media, a natural aura of insecurity engulfed the Muslim world, which was vaguely isolated in the world.
The US fighting wars in Islamic regions of the world was perceived as evidence of ‘US vs Muslim’ sentiments – something that was and is capitalised on by extremists across the world. Osama bin Laden exploited these sentiments to achieve his ulterior ambitions, just as Zahran Hasheem did in order to launch the 2019 Easter Sunday Attacks. Although the violent activities of terrorists should be unquestionably condemned, distorted strategies by the Western security community – especially the invasion of Iraq – should be condemned as well.
Even after fighting the beasts of terror for twenty long years, the US failed in its attempt to militarily stop the Taliban from gaining power in Afghanistan. The Doha Peace Deal between the US and the Taliban in 2020 was seen as the acceptance of this failure. By sitting at the same table with the Taliban and accepting them as major stakeholders in Afghanistan, the US fundamentally declared that the two decades spent on the war were a lost cause. After all this time, the Biden-Harris administration handed over the reins of power back to the Taliban – the very group that was denied rule in 2001. The relations between the US and the Taliban have seen many surprising changes; from being the supporters during the Soviet War in Afghanistan from 1979-1989 to being the cut-throat enemies after 9/11, the relationship evolved. Finally resulting in the most current development where both parties showcase a feigned acceptance of the co-existence of each other.
The Doha Peace Deal led to the total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. After this withdrawal, Kabul fell on 15th August 2021 without any resistance from the US-trained Afghan army. US-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul before the Taliban terrorists entered the capital. This raised many eyebrows across the world as the CIA had predicted otherwise. Reports suggested that the United States has spent almost $83 billion on the training of the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). Thus, the Marshall plan by the US to develop and equip the Afghanistan government’s resilience against terrorist organisations fell headfirst into the ground. Despite thorough attacks that often resulted in civilian casualties, the top militaries of the world were unable to dismantle a terrorist network that primarily operated from Afghanistan cave systems. Alternatively, the Sri Lankan military was able to decimate the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world (FBI statement 2008) and that too after conducting the world’s largest hostage rescue mission by rescuing approximately 200,000 civilians from the trappings of the LTTE’s human shields.
Although 9/11 raised an outcry for action from every section of American society, the retrospective view of the decisions taken by the Bush administration reveals the very inefficiency and miscalculations of some of those actions. A very prominent example is the Patriot Act, which was passed 45 days after the attacks. It was passed under the cloak of combating terrorism but is accused of jeopardising the civil rights of people in America and proved that the ambitious US government even used 9/11 as an opportunity to achieve its goals.
9/11 is rightly described by analysts as the most striking event of the century that reverberated across space and time. Afghanistan became a war-torn country; Pakistan faced the spillover effect of terrorism in the neighbourhood and multiple affiliated regions were stuck in the vicious cycle of terrorism. On one side, 9/11 reinvigorated an exceptional sense of unity among the people of the US. On the other hand, it created havoc in Afghanistan that lost any semblance of stability and prosperity.