How the 9/11 wars changed the world

The war on terror strengthened Islamist and Islamophobic politics

Updated - September 20, 2021 01:14 pm IST

Published - September 20, 2021 12:15 am IST

TOPSHOT - A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

TOPSHOT - A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

The bombing by the Islamic State Khorasan Province on August 26 outside Kabul airport that killed about 200 Afghans and 13 Americans at a time when the U.S. was scrambling to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan was a tragic testimony to everything that went wrong with America’s war on terror. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime. Twenty years later, when the U.S. exited Afghanistan, the Taliban, which never fully severed its ties with al-Qaeda, was back in power in Kabul and the country was emerging as the new base of the Islamic State.

U.S. President Joe Biden says the war on terror will continue. But the U.S.’s options are limited. It has lost its base in Afghanistan. Its alliance with Pakistan, which goes back to the Cold War, is over. Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries refuse to host an American base. This will impact intelligence operations. Even if the U.S. wants to carry out a drone strike in Afghanistan (which is not an effective counter-terrorism strategy anyway), it will have to fly the machines from the Gulf, based on intelligence collected from afar. If the U.S. couldn’t defeat terrorism after fighting two decades in Afghanistan along with Pakistan, how is it going to fight it in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from bases in the Gulf?


Regime change wars

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. saw a global outpouring of support and sympathy. There was a legal and moral argument in favour of its military action against al-Qaeda. But the fundamental problem with the war that the U.S. launched was that it wasn’t strategically focused on defeating al-Qaeda. Instead, the U.S., driven by the neoconservative hubris of the Bush administration, launched regime change wars to remake the Muslim world. President Biden now says the U.S. went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda. But facts on the ground tell a different story. In 2001, the U.S. brought down the Taliban regime and destroyed al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan. But instead of going after al-Qaeda networks, the U.S. initiated the next regime change war in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence or the lie that President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, not only diffused the U.S.’s focus in Afghanistan but also created conditions inside Iraq for al-Qaeda, which was forced to retreat from Afghanistan, to establish a new branch. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rose from the ruins of post-war Iraq to become the deadliest branch of the global jihadist outfit.

If the Bush administration did not learn from the mistakes of its Afghan invasion, the Obama administration did not learn from the mistakes of the Iraq invasion by President George Bush. In 2011, NATO launched another regime change war in Libya. The U.S. believed that with its superior military force, it could topple regimes, reorder political systems and remake the world. It did bring down regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but it remained clueless about how to tackle the instability that followed. Jihadists thrive amidst chaos and lawlessness. If post-war Iraq provided a new base for al-Qaeda, Libya’s collapse into anarchy, with different militias and governments fighting each other for control, allowed terrorists to spread to other parts of Africa. In Syria, the U.S. stopped short of a direct military intervention but backed armed rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is from the ruins of Syria that the Islamic State rose.

The regime change wars, which helped terrorist outfits proliferate in many countries, also led to the strengthening of both Islamist and Islamophobic politics across the world. The repeated attacks on Muslim-majority countries and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of locals, mostly Muslims, in these wars helped strengthen the jihadist narrative that the ‘Christian West’ is launching ‘a crusade’ against Muslims. The Islamic State repeatedly referred to all westerners as “crusaders” and broadcast videos of American strikes on social media with the aim of recruiting young Muslims. Anti-Americanism emerged as a dominant political theme across Muslim-majority countries, which Islamist hardliners sought to cash in on.


The wars also triggered a massive outflow of refugees from the affected countries to neighbouring nations and the faraway West where the populist far-right, already on the ascent after the 2008 financial crisis, turned it into a political weapon. During the 2011-15 Libyan and Syrian crises that saw hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers take the perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the far-right harped on Islamophobic rhetoric to drum up support. The Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in the West during this period further strengthened this narrative. In the end, the regime change wars, which failed to defeat terrorists, came back to divide and haunt the West in a different form.

Geopolitical setback

The most unexpected setback that the U.S. suffered was in geopolitics. When the U.S. was busy in the Muslim world, China was steadily rising. By the time the U.S. realised that China had become its greatest rival since the end of the Cold War, it was too late. The U.S. had already lost the war in Afghanistan; al-Qaeda had split into different branches (what President Biden called a metastasised threat); divisive, ethno-nationalist and Islamophobic politics had become stronger at home; and the moment of unipolarity had passed. In the face of these enormous challenges, President Biden decided to end the war in Afghanistan allowing the Taliban their victory. This left the war on terror uncertain and caused a shift in the U.S.’s strategic focus towards a resurgent China (policies followed by President Donald Trump). On August 31, Mr. Biden said the era of wars to reshape the world was over, marking an official end of the neoconservative regime-change foreign policy.


This doesn’t mean that the global hegemony of the U.S. is over. The U.S. suffered setbacks in the past and bounced back. The 1970s were particularly a bad decade for the U.S. during the Cold War. It had to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975, allowing the communists to win and unify the country. In 1978, the communists assumed power in Afghanistan. In 1979, the U.S. lost Iran. Yet, by late 1979, the U.S. was back in action, thanks to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden’s America, having suffered a crushing defeat in Afghanistan, might be reluctant to launch another direct military intervention in the near future. To be sure, America’s withdrawal and the perception of its weakness will embolden its rivals like Iran, Russia and China. But the U.S., which is seeking to return to realism from neoconservatism, might wait for its rivals, especially China, to commit blunders — like the Soviets, emboldened by America’s defeat in Vietnam, did in 1979 — or it might grab other strategic opportunities.

Afghanistan is not the end of American power; it’s the beginning of the new U.S.-China cold war. Meanwhile, terrorist outfits will continue to operate from the havens they have already found.

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