The September 11th attacks were launched by radical Islamists to demonstrate the vulnerability of the United States and to radicalize and galvanize the Muslim world against America and the West. They changed the ways of war, and that war continues.
Twenty years ago, al-Qaida grotesquely used planeloads of innocent men, women, and children to kill still more innocents. The attack was frightening in magnitude and in the way it ruthlessly violated existing norms and standards of warfare. It worked because it was unthinkable, and this very quality contributed to our failure to stop it.
On 9/11, America confronted the reality described by Grant: “If men make war in slavish observance of rules, they will fail. … War is progressive, because all the instruments and elements of war are progressive.” America changed its rules of war—and it did so in ways and with technology on a scale that few could imagine.
Beginning with measures to neutralize the threat from hijacked airliners, the U.S. reoriented intelligence operations, restructured its military, revised legal authorities, and vastly expanded its global power to cut the flow of resources to the terrorists and to “find, fix, and finish” its enemies. Many of the changes triggered serious debate; over time, measures were modified, and some were reversed. The debate over where to draw various lines continues while U.S.-led global counterterrorism forces remain powerful and effective.
America and its allies went to war in Afghanistan, the base of preparations for the 9/11 attacks. America also went to war in Iraq, believing it had weapons of mass destruction that would be used against the U.S. and its allies. It is difficult to believe that the destruction of untold numbers of terrorists far from America did not critically reduce and cripple the threat. Over time, the resilience of terror networks declined. In both wars, America sought to prevent future attacks, and leave Afghanistan and Iraq in a stable, benign, and better condition. In this way, America hoped to conclude successfully the war with terrorists begun on 9/11.
Yet clearly, the goal of shuttering the “terrorist factories” in Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen, for that matter) has not been achieved. Why? To some, America walked away from a distant conflict it could not win and could not maintain the political will to continue. Was the ugly and dangerous collapse in Iraq and Afghanistan the result of unforced errors of leadership and strategy? Was failure in Afghanistan and Iraq the necessary result of America falling once again into the trap of “nation building”—falsely believing it could create a just political order in these nations?
Too much of this discussion ignores the U.S. and coalition failure to counter the malign power of external threats. The allies did not stop the real drivers of failure—the unchecked ability of externally supported forces to carry out internal violence and to kill, corrupt, or compromise leaders working with America for a better future. Without security, being “all in” with the U.S. brought indigenous partners more, not less, risk. Regular statements of America’s eagerness to depart increased this risk and encouraged hedging with the enemy.
In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was Pakistan and Iran providing critical assistance and safe haven to enemy forces and thwarting efforts at post-conflict stabilization (with Communist China and Russia quietly supporting in the wings).
It must be added that in Afghanistan, America and its allies misunderstood the danger of opium production, allowing it to provide substantial support to the terrorists while distorting economic and political development and fueling corruption. Much can be learned by comparing U.S. policy success in Colombia under President Uribe and the failures of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
The fact there have been no mass-casualty terrorist attacks on the American homeland since 9/11 is a remarkable success—but there have been serious and ongoing attacks over the last 20 years. America thwarted assaults by Islamic terrorists, but it has been attacked by cyber-weapons and a pathogen that caused a global pandemic (a pandemic if not created by Communist China, certainly made worse by the actions of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party). Moreover, America remains under attack by fentanyl, the deadly poison flowing from Communist China to Mexican trafficking organizations for U.S. distribution. This is to say nothing of the nuclear weapons threats posed by North Korea and Iran also aided by the Chinese Communist leadership.
Terrorists, rogue states, and transnational criminal organizations have become proxies for Iran and (via Pakistan) for Communist China and Russia. These nations are the center of gravity for the threats of today, and America’s situation has changed.
America did not lose the global war on terror and America did not sacrifice its principles to fight that ongoing war. The U.S. was not swept by bigotry against Muslims and today we are welcoming thousands we failed to save in Afghanistan.
One cannot visit Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery each year without feeling the pain and loss of our brave defenders and warriors. We owe them and the many, many more Americans who fought and lived, our deep admiration and gratitude. They liberated Afghanistan and Iraq and destroyed our enemies around the world with a power and efficiency unique in military history. They also fought smarter and better than any forces in the past, limiting both the losses in their ranks and the killing of innocents. Never has a nation so carefully conformed its use of lethal force to the principles of civilized peoples—and all this while confronting an enemy that has been willfully and flamboyantly uncivilized from 9/11 onward.
However, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks did embolden the enemies of the United States. The war on terror is now embedded in a larger conflict between even more dangerous anti-democratic forces arrayed against America and its allies. The most powerful and dangerous adversaries—Communist China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are tyrannies and oligarchies. As such, they are inherently brittle, facing the constant danger of ambitious rivals within and the hostility of all those who desire freedom and justice. The example of American democracy is an existential threat to these regimes. They can be damaged and weakened by smart American leadership using our economic, political, military, and moral strengths.
Twenty years after the 9/11 attack, America’s security problem is more complex. The U.S still faces unthinkable threats—“not only the impossible and the improbable, but also the implausible, the unlikely, and the unproven,” as Herman Kahn, Hudson Institute’s founder, once wrote. Moreover, America and its allies now face multiple, dangerous adversaries regularly conducting attacks, which have not been deterred, weakened, contained, or overcome. America’s strategic situation is much more dangerous than it was twenty years ago. Once again, it is time to rethink the rules of war. This is Hudson’s most important and urgent priority.