Reaction to the September 11 attacks was a succession of errors that still haunt the US

The scenes of the Taliban arriving in Kabul last week, accompanied by the desperate flight of Afghans and citizens from various countries, brought back to the debate the long conflict in Afghanistan, the central face of the “war on terror”, the US political and military response. to the attacks of September 11, 2001, whose errors still haunt the country.

In launching this war, then-President George W. Bush placed fighting terrorist organizations at the top of the administration’s priorities, with an initial focus on the al-Qaeda network, responsible for hurling planes against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in the biggest terrorist attack on American soil.

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However, instead of acting on the basis of intelligence actions and surgical attacks, the Bush administration opted, as historian Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Fund for International Peace points out, for grandiose military actions, which had colossal financial and human costs. no guarantee of defeating al-Qaeda or capturing its founder, Osama bin Laden.

— 9/11 was a tragedy on top of another tragedy. There were the attacks themselves, horrible and still painful. And there was the US reaction to them, which was driven by something more than a response to a security issue,” said Wertheim, author of the book “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy” (Tomorrow, the World: the birth of American global supremacy, without translation in Brazil).

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Wertheim remembers the words of the then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after the planes left nearly 3,000 dead in the US: for him, the response to the attacks would have to “hit something” — that is, bombs exploding in distant places and enemies on their knees, live on Americans’ TVs.

Thus, the Afghan War would begin with attacks on al-Qaeda positions in inhospitable areas of a country that had become known to the public as the quagmire of the Soviets in the 1980s and now as home to the most hated man in the world, Bin Laden.

The Taliban would be deposed within weeks, but would continue to fight a war against international forces and the Western-style government installed in Kabul: the difference is that the one that came to be dubbed “the good war” lost space in Washington to another conflict, much more controversial: the Iraq War. The two would become known — for better and for worse — as “eternal wars,” at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of US government dollars.

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“The wars that today (2021) are finally ending are the result of a unique combination of arrogance and alarm,” wrote Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, in an April article for Foreign Policy. “It was this peculiar marriage of supreme confidence and exaggerated fears that led to the needless, protracted, and unsuccessful wars of the unipolar era.”

goodbye unipolarity

These were the last days of the United States as the only superpower in the world, after the end of the Cold War, a period when the idea of ​​American exceptionalism was predominant.

“For you to be taken seriously as a political figure in the US, you had to say how exceptional and indispensable the US was in the world,” recalls Wertheim. – Then we left this phase in a decisive way.

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Heavily influenced by the lack of concrete results, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were central to eroding the image of US leadership. Failures on the battlefield and successive violations of human rights by a nation that defended itself as a defender of freedom strengthened the discourse of adversaries, such as a Russia trying to recover from the fall of the Soviet Union, and created new problems for Washington.

“The last two decades have revealed the madness in this arrogance. With the declaration of ‘war on terror’ after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US went abroad in search of monsters, and ended up creating new ones”, wrote in late 2020 in Foreign Affairs Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor of Senator Bernie Sanders.

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Among the new monsters, Duss cites the destabilization of the Middle East by the Iraq War and the Arab Spring revolts, in some cases against US-backed regimes. It also says that the “war on terror” laid the foundations for the deterioration of the belief in democracy, masked by an exacerbated nationalism that led to a new form of terrorism, including on American soil.

Too many challenges

Even movements supported by Washington in the post-Cold War, such as economic globalization, created the perfect environment for the rise of other forces, especially China, today one of the great powers, and which has already taken the leadership role in certain countries from the United States. scenarios such as Afghanistan itself under Taliban command.

It was the confirmation of what former diplomat Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington think tank said in 2005: with the multiplication of challenges, it became impossible for the US to take the lead in everyone. It was necessary to give up or abstain—in practice, the end of the era of the single superpower.

—We can see another story emerging at this moment, with the US giving up its grand ambitions of trying to change the nature of the world to become one nation among other nations, not one that rises above the rest and tries to dominate them — opines Wertheim . — I think this happens when the ideas of an “indispensable nation” or American exceptionalism are put aside.

This posture was in evidence in the last years of the last decade: whether by the bet on multilateralism, as in the case of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, closed by Barack Obama in partnership with six other nations and the European Union, or by the retraction in the plan international, seen in Donald Trump’s years with his disdain for dialogue with former allies and the promise of ending “eternal wars”. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan despite the victory of the Taliban and the absence of any discussion of a new intervention are part of this context.

— It is difficult to know today what role the US plays in the world. A valid narrative is that the US now focuses on so-called great power competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. This marks a profound change from the past decade — says Wertheim. — At the same time, the US realized the limits of its power to force change in other countries. With that, it appears to be an era of limitations for the US in the world, and that is a difficult position for Americans.