We are 17 years out from the horrific attacks that targeted the United States on September 11, 2001. The Center for Global Policy (CGP) dedicates this week’s Navigator to a candid self-examination and critique of the current state and future trajectory of U.S. security and global stability. It is crucial that we remain steadfast in our fight against jihadist and other radical non-state actors who wish to harm us and undermine the world at large. But how do we do so in a manner that does not undermine the stability of state actors and, with these efforts, how do we ensure that our efforts do not create more space for jihadists to exploit? We owe it to the approximately 3,000 Americans who lost their lives on that devastating day to find answers to these questions.
What Has Changed?
Al Qaeda pulled off its attack because our intelligence community and security institutions, and the broader civilian bureaucracy, were unprepared to coordinate and share information. The establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office Directorate of National Intelligence reorganized the state machinery, vastly improving Washington’s ability to tackle both international and domestic threats. As a result, the United States has prevented another 9/11-scale attack on its soil. That said, in recent years we have experienced smaller-scale attacks by localized terrorist elements inspired by Daesh.
The United States has secured the home front by enhancing the homeland security architecture, thereby reducing the ability of foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and Daesh to penetrate our security grid. Meanwhile, Washington has embarked upon a robust domestic campaign of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) to ensure that these entities are not able to recruit from our citizenry. CVE efforts overseas, however, will be a work in progress for a very long time to come, largely because the wars and smaller operations we have engaged in overseas to defeat jihadist forces have produced unintended outcomes: the proliferation of jihadist entities along with the weakening of states.
The United States and NATO committed themselves to the war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided a safe harbor for al Qaeda. However, we became mired in nation building and the quest for regional security in an undefinable “war against terror.” Our efforts to build a democratic polity in the southwest Asian country have not produced the desired results, in great part because our Afghan partners are entwined with corruption, narcotics, organized crime, nepotism, tribal and ethnic rivalries, and violent religious extremists operating within the Afghan government. In addition, we’ve yet to address the ongoing mismanagement of U.S. funds identified by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in areas of infrastructure development, civilian and military training, and social services.
The result is that the United States is engaged in the longest war in its history, and ending it is proving extremely difficult. Lately, the Trump White House has been trying to build upon the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate with the same entity that we ejected from power in late 2001. While Washington is negotiating with the Taliban – an elusive endeavor in and of itself – the Afghan state seems to be withering away. In many ways, we are back where we started 17 years ago.
The war in Iraq, which many in Washington have acknowledged as a strategic error, made matters far worse. The Bush administration’s decision to effect regime change in Baghdad led to the rise of Daesh – a force much deadlier than al Qaeda – as well as Iran’s empowerment as Tehran exploits the regional commotion. Washington is now caught in a causality loop whereby efforts to weaken one side empowers the other. Moreover, the U.S. military intervention in Iraq complicated the 2011 Arab Spring phenomenon, which has led to jihadists dominating the region’s battlespaces and filling the vacuums created by crumbling autocracies.
According to a Brown University Watson Institute Costs of War report, the U.S. military expenditures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, along with domestic spending on veteran affairs, will total more than $5.6 trillion this year. This means that the average American taxpayer has spent $23,386on these war efforts since 2001. It is incredibly important to ask how we spent our treasury, time, and talent. It is equally important to honestly identify what we’ve done right and where we can do we better.
But this does not illuminate the social, human, psychological, and individual costs expended in the Middle East, South Asia, and at home. All of these efforts, on the battlefield or in discussions of geopolitical interests, have contributed to the destabilization of an unpredictable region with both erratic non-state actors and state actors disinterested in democratic institutions and the rule of law. The perennial question is: How can we fight jihadist non-state actors, or other violent extremists, in a way that does not undermine regional and international security? Policy makers, intelligence experts, security strategists, and congressional leaders must get creative in combating terrorism worldwide. There must be alternatives to the war paradigm, which has been an effective recruiting device for a new generation of terrorists.
Given the scale of turmoil in Arab and Muslim countries, searching for those alternatives is a Herculean task. Only through a holistic assessment of the numerous conflicts raging in that part of the world will the United States be able to devise a strategy that does not create a handful of problems in the process of solving one. After 17 years of expending massive amounts of our national blood and treasure, it is high time we realize that our piecemeal approach has simply provided room to grow for the successors of those who attacked us on 9/11. We must rethink and recalibrate the path we laid out for ourselves after the September 11, 2001 attacks, if we want any meaningful improvement in international security.