The 18th anniversary of Al Qaeda's mega terrorist attacks on the United States once again not only reminds us of those tragic events, but also prompts us to ask whether the world has become any safer since then. The short answer is that we are still in the grip of more rather than less insecurity and a scourge of conflicts and extremism. Muslim extremist, Islamophobic, white supremacist and anti-Semitic actions have arisen on the global landscape at an alarming rate. Why?
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, killing some 3,000 people to the horror of the Americans and indeed the world, and the US responded by declaring a 'war on terror', it was clear that the global political and strategic environment would not be the same again. In the shadow of the post-Cold War, two deeply hostile and vindictive centres of power locked horns to change the world according to their ideological and geopolitical preferences: the trans-subnational violent network of Al Qaeda and the United States as the sole superpower. While the former operated in the name and defence of Islam, the latter acted in pursuit of protecting peace, freedom and democracy. In declaring a war on terror, the US and its allies and sympathisers around the world strongly believed that American power would prevail. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War as we knew it, and technological progress generated the space and means for religious fanatic, neoconservative and extreme ethno-nationalist groups to flourish on the one hand, and for the consolidation of a polycentric world on the other.
US power indeed prevailed in dispersing Al Qaeda's leadership and its main operatives from Afghanistan, from where the 9/11 attacks had been orchestrated, and in overthrowing the group's harbourer, the Taliban's theocratic regime in that country. But in the process, it defeated neither. Al Qaeda became a franchise (inspiring several other like-minded groups to surface) and the Taliban regrouped to challenge the US in Afghanistan and wherever the war on terror took American operations.
Washington had proudly claimed that it could fight two wars concurrently. Yet, its ability was tested with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that toppled the hated Saddam Hussein's dictatorship at the cost of diverting resources from a highly fragile Afghanistan. Although America's Afghanistan intervention was viewed by most of the world as justified, its Iraq invasion was executed without any global legitimacy. Apart from Britain and Australia, no other allies joined it, including the traditional European ones, most importantly France and Germany. Under the conservative Republican presidency of George W. Bush, the US rapidly opted for unilateralism, democratic expansionism, and an application of brute power to change the world in the image of the United States and to make the 21st Century one of American power rather than China or any other power.
Washington constituted a pole of extremism that mirrored that of Al Qaeda and its supporters, but obviously with no moral equivalence.
The right forces in the US had been seeking to shape the country's foreign policy according to a unilateralist extremist agenda since the 1980s. While held at bay during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), one of their leading forces, the so-called neoconservative group, led by such ideologues as Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and Richard Perle, was now handed a unique opportunity with the election of president Bush as a leading voice of born-again Christians and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the spokesperson for ultra-nationalists, to advance their objectives. Although these forces came from different backgrounds, they all shared a common ideological platform and a shared belief in what was termed a 'doctrine of power reality'. They argued that as the mightiest state on Earth, the United States should exert its economic and military power to export American democracy, in the first instance, through Iraq to the Middle East and via the latter to the rest of the world. They further contended, though for different reasons, that the US should fully stand behind the state of Israel as the most sacred and reliable Judeo-Christian and democratic ally, and target the challenging Islamic Republic of Iran. They constituted a pole of extremism that mirrored that of Al Qaeda and its supporters, but obviously with no moral equivalence.
Yet, in the process, they overestimated the capacity of the US to fight effectively the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the context of the wider war on terror simultaneously. Washington's lack of workable plans for bringing peace to two invaded countries, and for targeting terrorism as a moving and unspecified object, soon exposed the weakness of American power. It opened the way for subnational violent opposition groups to confront the US with vengeance. The Islamic State of Iraq - as a precursor to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - blossomed in Iraq, and Al Qaeda, which did not have a presence in Iraq before the American invasion, now found fertile ground not only there, but also wherever Washington extended its war on terror. These groups were aided covertly by those regional states that wanted either to prolong and raise the cost of the wars for the US, or to benefit from them. Iran and Pakistan were two such actors.
Although Washington eventually realised that it was involved in very costly and degrading wars, it could not easily disentangle itself. Barack Obama's Democratic leadership disavowed the doctrine of power reality, abandoned the concept of a 'war on terror' in favour of 'counter-insurgency', revised America's Afghanistan strategy to end the combat mission in that country by the close of 2014, and withdrew from Iraq by the end of 2011, but its efforts came too late and yielded little success. The horror of terrorism continued, forcing Washington to redeploy American power to fight the extremist Islamic State, which was declared in war-torn Iraq and Syria in mid-2014.
The Afghanistan war has become endless, despite heavy human and material costs for the US and its allies, as well as the Afghan people. The neo-nationalist and impulsive President Donald Trump wants to see the end of American involvement through a political settlement, but his efforts to partner with the Taliban have brought no respite. The Iraq situation remains very fragile, with the Kurdish segment of its population seeking independence in the north, and the Sunni portion of its people remaining dissatisfied with the dominant rule of the Shia majority, amongst whom Iran has managed to gain greater influence than the US could have expected.
Meanwhile, US-Iranian tensions have peaked, as Trump has targeted Iran with a policy of maximum pressure to force Iran to renegotiate the July 2015 nuclear agreement in America's favour and to retrench its missile programme and regional influence, to which Tehran has been defiant. Trump's unqualified backing of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region as a counter to Iran has added to the bone of contention in the region. This, plus the US-Chinese geopolitical and economic rivalries, underlined by Trump leading a trade war as part of a policy of containing China, and the US-Russian geopolitical competition, leaves the world dangling under the weight of violence, uncertainty, insecurity and unpredictability, and thus less better off than it was prior to 9/11.
- Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, and co-author (with James Piscatori) of Islam Beyond Borders: Umma in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019)