The catastrophic legacy of 9/11 will define the US for years to come

The dust has yet to settle. Anthony Correia/Shutterstock.com

As the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks comes around, the world seems no safer than it was when US President George W. Bush launched his war on terror. In fact, the legacy of violence and conflict has had repercussions more serious than even the pessimists could have imagined.

The September 11 2001 attacks were the work of al-Qaeda and its then-leader, Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda terrorists who trained as pilots in the US hijacked four commercial planes; they crashed two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York City and another into a section of the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth plane, the fabled United 93, crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers tried to overwhelm the hijackers. All in all, the attacks killed about 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000.

Bush’s tenure was ultimately defined by its response to 9/11 – a litany of disastrous mistakes and missed opportunities. At the end of 2001, the world was ready to come together to denounce acts of extremist terrorism. It wouldn’t have been difficult to create a strong, persuasive counter-narrative to al-Qaeda’s by working jointly with American and international Muslims to forge a common strategy against radical Islamist terrorism.

Instead, the response from the Bush administration was immediate and belligerent: the US would invade Afghanistan and go after al-Qaeda, where the terrorist group had established a safe haven. The US would also attack al-Qaeda’s host, the extremist Taliban regime.

With the help of the UK, some of the NATO countries, Australia and some other allies, the US invaded on October 7 2001 under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom. The invasion toppled the Taliban and seriously disrupted al-Qaeda’s networks; by 2003, al-Qaeda had been drastically weakened.

But the US didn’t stop there. On March 20 2003, driven by several neo-conservative thinkers including Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, the US invaded Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was supporting terrorist groups. With the exception of the British government, few of the US’s allies supported this decision. In spite of this, the US’s invasion of Iraq was to be the jewel in the Bush presidency’s crown.

Instead, it proved to be an outright catastrophe.

Estimates of the body count in Iraq vary considerably. Conservative estimates claim that 251,000 have died in the Iraq conflict, including as many as 180,000 civilians. Other studies argue that the death count from 2003-2011 is closer to 500,000.

Bush tried to portray the project in Iraq as a humanitarian venture to liberate Iraq from oppression, in an endeavour that would quickly pay for itself. Neo-conservatives predicted the war could be won cheaply and quickly.

Instead, the US spent over US$800 billion and stayed in Iraq for almost a decade. Offered with a new calling to fight a holy war in Iraq, al-Qaeda came back with a vengeance and spawned the even more brutal al-Qaeda in Iraq, which in turn gave birth to the Islamic State. A civil war that broke out made stable government all but impossible, and Iraq turned back into a near-dictatorship under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki.

Though the invasion of Afghanistan had much more international support than the invasion of Iraq, it nonetheless incurred huge costs. It’s been estimated that around 21,000 civilians have died since the invasion. Failing to learn the lessons of countless other invaders before it, the US-led invasion in Afghanistan did not yield a functioning state. Afghanistan can only function with foreign aid. It is still unstable, unsafe, corrupt and incredibly poor. The Taliban is still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan, and the Taliban faction in Pakistan is stronger than ever.

Al-Qaeda was still relatively weak, and could have been entirely eliminated by stemming its recruitment, cutting off funding and taking a harsher stance on countries that offered it financial support, such as Saudi Arabia. Instead, the US’s response was to invade several countries, leaving a trail of death, destruction and anger. Under Bush, the US operated as a global superpower – but it drastically overextended and isolated itself.

Few options, little progress

When the Obama administration began in January 2009, it had very few options. Having not been in favour of the war while he served as a state senator, Barrack Obama inherited a mess. Withdrawing immediately was not a realistic option and thus the choice for how long to remain was difficult. US troops did eventually leave in December of 2011, but the Iraq they departed was far from stable and democratic. The Iraqi military was incredibly weak (as it is today); the government was corrupt and sectarian.

The vacuum created by the Iraq war also allowed the war in Syria to heat up after the peaceful 2011 uprising against Assad turned into a violent crackdown. Since then, more than 470,000 people have been killed in Syria, and millions have been displaced.

President Barack Obama visits Iraq early in his tenure. EPA/Staff Sgt. Joy Pariante

Regrets about the invasion of Iraq left the West highly wary of military ventures overseas, and left it unwilling to do much – if anything – about the brewing conflict in Syria. The world watched on as a humanitarian disaster unfolded. No world leader has had a coherent plan of action to resolve the conflict.

All the while, the landscape of radical terrorism has changed too. There have been successful mass-casualty terror attacks on US soil since 9/11 (the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, for instance), but they have been “lone wolf” attacks rather than tightly co-ordinated offensives by militant groups. That is something to be thankful for – but around the world, the picture is far from encouraging.

Deaths attributed to terrorism increased by 80% in 2014, though it decreased slightly in 2015. More and more countries are afflicted by terrorist acts: in 2013, only five countries counted over 500 lives claimed by terrorism, but in 2014, that number rose to 11. While countries such Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan still bear the brunt of most terrorist attacks, Europe also remains on high alert and France in particular has been in an official state of emergency since the Islamic State-sanctioned Paris attacks of November 2015. The world also seems incredibly divided, with Islamophobic attacks at an all-time high.

The road ahead

Clearly, the world is in need of great leaders who can both take risks and work hard to bridge cultural and political gaps – all without polarising people even further. This year’s US presidential election, however, offers one less than inspiring candidate and another who’s nothing less than a disaster-in-waiting.

Hillary Clinton, then a senator, visits the destroyed World Trade Centre in 2001. EPA/Robert F. Bukaty

Judging by her track record as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton does not seem to have a transformative vision of what US foreign policy is for. Whatever pre-existing plans Obama and his team have put in place regarding Islamist terrorism, Syria and Iraq will not be scrapped and rewritten wholesale. Clinton voted to invade Iraq when serving as a senator from New York, and while she has repeatedly expressed regret for that vote, she has never fully shaken off her association with the disaster that ensued.

It’s much harder to predict what a Donald Trump presidency would entail. After all, he admitted that he didn’t know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, and said he would learn the distinction between Hamas and Hezbollah “when it’s appropriate”. And however empty and confused his current platform may be, it’s clear that stability and peace are not his priorities.

But whoever takes the reins, 9/11 and its fallout will continue to shape their presidency and America’s global role more than 15 years on. Neither the US nor the world will ever be quite the way they were before the morning of September 11 2001.