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Sep 10, 2021
For our generation, 9/11 was a Sputnik moment. Just as the launch of the world’s first satellite in October 1957 focused the West’s attention on the emerging threat posed by the Soviet Union, the attacks on that sunny September morning jarred the world off its axis. Nothing would be the same again.
To mark the 20th anniversary of those horrific attacks, today’s Daily Dose highlights some of the pivotal moments — many of them largely forgotten — and shifts that came to define the war on terror, and what could come next.
Many of America’s leading political decision-makers voted in favor of waging war on Iraq in October 2002 based on the now-debunked theory that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Many of the politicians who voted for the invasion and occupation remain influential today, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, who now serves as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, President Joe Biden, as well as leading Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and others.
2 - Changing Views
In 2002 and 2003, millions worldwide protested the invasion of Iraq. Incidents like prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the leak of a classified video of a 2007 U.S. military engagement in which a dozen Iraqis were killed worked to further undermine support for the war. The war would see the toppling of Hussein and the deaths of nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians, as well as thousands of U.S. soldiers.
3 - Defining Torture
“Enhanced interrogation techniques.” That phrase will forever be connected to the war on terror and how it affected America’s reputation as the leader of the free world. While then-President George W. Bush said the U.S. “does not torture people,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 memo stated that the U.S. had approved the interrogation of people for 20 hours straight. Bush said he didn’t consider waterboarding torture because he was assured by medical professionals that it did “no lasting harm.” The technique was used to try to pull vital information from terrorist suspects in a bid to save lives.
4 - You’re Being Followed
Edward Snowden’s revelations of global mass spying by America’s National Security Agency in 2013 have fundamentally challenged opinions about surveillance, online security and, for some, even trust in what democratic nations can do. China and a host of authoritarian states might do it more openly, but some began to wonder whether the NSA might be snooping on them as they send emails or speak on Zoom. What’s more, in a world in which cookies and a host of other tracking devices are used to map your every move, the more you try to protect your privacy, the more suspicious you may appear to government agents.
5 - Bin Laden’s Killing
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a dozen other officials gathered in the White House Situation Room as U.S. Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Obama said no video of the raid or photos of the body would be released because “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” Bin Laden was buried at sea. A day before the mission — after Obama had authorized it — he was at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner poking fun at Donald Trump and his “birther” conspiracy theories.
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If you think the war on terror never affected you personally, just remember that you now have to take off your shoes and put them through a scanner at most airports. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, British terrorist Richard Reid tried to ignite bombs in his shoes on a flight to Miami. The so-called shoe bomber was restrained and is now serving life in prison, but the incident forever changed air travel. These days, you need to arrive at the airport much earlier than in the pre-9/11 era and be prepared to take off your belt and jacket.
2 - Arabic, the New Russian
Sitting in a cafe in Syria’s capital, Damascus, in 2008 (Stephen Starr, OZY Senior Editor, was based there at the time), it was impossible not to wonder how 30 years earlier, international relations students would have found themselves in Kyiv or Bratislava. After 9/11, Arabic became the must-know language for anyone keen to join the U.S. State Department. Between 2002 and 2013 in the U.S., the number of students enrolled in Arabic courses at universities tripled to more than 32,000. As the war on terror stretched from months into years, thousands of students took off for college campuses in Amman, Cairo and Damascus.
3 - Gulf Rising
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have seen their diplomatic stock reach stratospheric levels due to the war on terror. Qatar made its name through the government-owned Al-Jazeera news agency, which broadcast some of the most important footage of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Media aside, Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the UAE also spotted an opportunity to pursue its goal of becoming a regional powerhouse. The country of nearly 10 million people has sent military forces to Yemen, Libya and Somalia, funded militants in the Syrian conflict and last year spent almost $20 billion on defense.
4 - Drones Change the Game
When Obama authorized the use of an armed drone to assassinate an American citizen outside of a war zone for the first time, the rules of engagement changed forever. A radical cleric and al-Qaida terrorist, Anwar al-Awlaki’s death on Sept. 30, 2011, prompted significant criticism from rights groups that claimed the incident amounted to an extrajudicial killing. While the U.S. government has largely held off on killing its own citizens in such a way since then, thousands of citizens of other countries haven’t been as lucky.
5 - Who Benefited?
Someone always does. In Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent $300 million a day. Since 2001, America has spent $83 billion — more than four times Afghanistan’s gross domestic product — on training and equipping the Afghan army. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been so lucrative for top weapons manufacturers that had you bought $10,000 worth of stock in the top companies in 2001, you’d be sitting on close to $100,000 today. Other beneficiaries of the war on terror include private military contractors like Blackwater.
Since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban seem to have swapped their trusty Russian Kalashnikovs for American M16 rifles. While it’s unclear how much military equipment the U.S. left behind, we know that that small arms, Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles have all fallen into Taliban hands. The militants could now sell the weapons on the black market, with some potentially finding their way to the arsenal of Pakistani terrorists, Kashmiri separatists or even the Islamic State group — just as they did in Iraq some years ago. But perhaps the most dangerous weapon terror groups — from the Middle East to Mozambique and Southeast Asia to the Sahel — have gained from the rushed U.S. exit from Afghanistan is the inspiration they’ll take from the U.S. “defeat.”
2 - Taliban — Important US Ally?
America’s intervention in Iraq had the unintended effect of creating the Islamic State group. Now, an offshoot of that terror outfit, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISK, is showing it’s capable of major attacks like the one that killed 13 U.S. troops and close to 200 Afghans at Kabul’s airport last month. And that’s spawning unlikely cooperation between Washington and the Taliban, foes that fought bitterly against each other for two decades. The Taliban and the ISK are enemies. Biden has noted the Taliban are “not good guys,” but has said that working with the Taliban is a “matter of mutual self-interest.” Can they really put their differences aside in the face of the joint threat?
3 - Forever Prisoners
As Kabul fell last month, a Taliban leader sitting in what had until recently been former President Ashraf Ghani’s office, said he’d spent years in the Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison camp. The stunning turnaround highlights the question: Why is Guantanamo still open years after former President Barack Obama promised to close it? The prison has, perhaps more than anything else, sullied America’s reputation as an upholder of justice and due process. Many of the nearly 800 detainees that have passed through it were never charged and are never expected to face trial. Thirty-nine remain at the detention center in Cuba, and while Biden had been taking steps to close it, the Taliban’s resurgence could mean Guantanamo’s “forever prisoners” will remain, despite the end of the “forever war.”
4 - No More World Police
It’s not just the Afghan war that’s ended. Biden has made it clear that America’s withdrawal from Kabul was also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries” entirely. Will this mean a more inward-looking America? Due to the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, “The U.S. has lost out badly at a diplomatic level,” Jasmine Opperman, a counterterrorism expert based in South Africa, tells OZY.
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