The Attacks of 9/11 and the Pernicious Mirage of Victory
Twenty years ago, a major terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland shocked a country many imagined to be as indispensable as it was exceptional. Today, it seems almost fitting that the United States should mark the 20th anniversary of that attack under the shock of the ignominious end to the intervention in Afghanistan. Whether shock will be enough to prompt a reckoning with the mistakes of the past 20 years, though, is far from certain.
That reckoning is necessary, because if the interminable global war on terror that followed 9/11 prevented another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, it did so at huge cost. While most of America is naturally reflecting this week on all the different ways the 9/11 attacks transformed country and the world, what seems to have changed most is our understanding of the impact and limits of the kind of military power unleashed over the past 20 years.
There is widespread agreement that the U.S. export of industrial-scale violence will continue to reverberate across wide swaths of the Middle East and South Asia for another generation to come. From the toppling of the Taliban 1.0 regime in 2001 to the rise of the Taliban 2.0 in 2021, Afghanistan has consistently ranked at the bottom of global indexes on the state of peace and conflict, right alongside Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia. In all six countries, American boots on the ground—both overt and covert—have been a defining feature of a torrent of violent dysfunction that has killed and wounded millions. And if we take U.S. President Joe Biden at his word that “over the horizon” strikes against U.S.-defined terrorist threats will continue long into the future, many more will perish.
Yet, the math of America’s counterterrorism strategy has never really added up. In raw numbers, Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that close to a million people have been killed in post-9/11 warzones. Researchers at Brown also suggest that U.S. spending on its endless pursuit of Islamist extremists has so far totaled $8 trillion. Of that, about $2.1 trillion consisted of direct spending on overseas contingency operations, while spending on veterans’ care hit $465 billion and is projected to reach up to $2.2 trillion over the next 30 years. Compare those numbers to the 3,400 Americans estimated to have been killed worldwide since 9/11, and it’s fair to wonder where the boundaries lie for an American national security policy dictated by an insatiable quest for retribution.
The United States, of course, is not alone in adopting a quixotic “vengeance as vigilance” strategy. Violent revenge for “un-Islamic” acts is a core tenet of the jihadist conception of just governance. The diminished status of al-Qaida and the Islamic State notwithstanding, the map of Islamist-inspired extremist mergers and acquisitions has grown apace with an unending cycle of jihadist-inspired violence and drone strikes in response.
If this is victory in the war on terror, what does it tell us about the “next big thing” the world seems to be banking on—great power competition?
Terrorism scholar Daniel Byman, sadly, may be right in predicting that the U.S. will adopt a strategy like that of Israel against Hamas, where “mowing the grass” and decapitating extremist groups’ leadership will become a common feature of American national security strategy. But with authoritarian leaders around the world continuing to seed the field for extremism—Arab, Asian, European, American and otherwise—there will be plenty of grass to mow long into the future. If this is how we learn to live with terrorism, it may be one of the costliest lessons of 9/11.
And if this is victory in the war on terror, what does it tell us about the “next big thing” the world seems to be banking on—great power competition? In this “new” paradigm, the U.S. and China will line up on the scrimmage line and vie for primacy in trade and technology. Meanwhile, we are told, Russia will act as a spoiler. In this contest, as currently conceived, Biden, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are basically trying to convince as many allies and challengers as possible that the competition can be “won.” No one in Beijing, Washington or Moscow, however, seems to be able to define what winning looks like.
That is why great power competition is as pernicious a paradigm as going to war with terror. As we grapple with the legacy of 9/11 two decades on, it appears obvious that the notion of decisive victory in the contest between states or rival military organizations is just as much a shimmering mirage far in the distance as victory against extremist terrorism.
What, then, does the future of security look like over the next 20 years? Maybe the easiest way to answer that question is to describe what is least likely to happen. There are no bright-line victories in the contest for dominance in artificial intelligence, the cyber realm or space. There will be few winners in the quest to competitively navigate the impact of climate extremes. Instead, food insecurity, mass displacement and economic disruption will gradually become the new normal.
In fact, the hardest lesson for the post-9/11 world to learn may be that “winning” over the next 20 years is much more likely to look at best like surviving. Surviving will be easier with a paradigm of cooperation and constructive competition. Shock can be therapeutic. We’ll need it to be.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.