The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks leads us to reflect on how much the world has changed and whether the U.S. is stronger today or, as some argue, slowly declining. Is the cradle of democracy a signpost for the world, or did it cease to be one a long time ago, when its image died at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?
The Aftermath and the Lessons Learned 20 Years after 9/11
What are the lessons from 20 years fighting the war on terror? We have asked ourselves all these questions, naturally, because of today’s anniversary. The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the takeover of power by the Taliban, who together with Osama bin Laden, celebrated attacks on the U.S. 20 years ago, make these questions even more valid.
Twenty years ago, the U.S. was, in a sense, at the height of its power. Winning the Cold War, coupled with a brief, victorious war that ended in the liberation of Kuwait, ushered in a world of the 1990s and the reality, that for the first time in decades, there was only one global hegemon. The eminent American conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer titled one of his texts published after the fall of the Berlin Wall “The Unipolar Movement,” in which he wrote about the role of the U.S. in the world. For this is exactly what the world was like in the 1990s.
Indeed, those years were a time when no one was in a position to challenge the U.S. Yet the lesson that history teaches us is that the domination of a single power is more often an exception than the rule. It was clear that someone would contest the world order. What was surprising is that the challenge came from a bearded Saudi man living in Afghanistan.
Drawing Power from the Power of the Opposition
Twenty years after 9/11 and 10 years after bin Laden’s death, the U.S. is being challenged by much more serious players. And they are not so unexpected. The fact that the potential of Beijing and Moscow would grow with time was no secret to anyone. American strategists understood this as early as the 1990s ,when they began working on new types of ships whose purpose was to fight in shallow waters — like the areas in which the Chinese fleet operates.
This was understood by Polish politicians, who rejected alternatives to NATO and EU membership. They knew well that Russia’s weakness would not last forever, and Poland would either benefit from a unique opportunity to join the Western alliances or again become the object — and not the subject — of the great game.
The predictions came true. China is now a superpower, and Russia is flexing its muscles as well. But are these two countries able to challenge the U.S.? China’s ambitions still seem to be mainly regional, and Russia is still actively conducting operations in Syria and sending its mercenaries to Libya, but in truth, it is fighting over Ukraine, Syria and Libya, and in all the other directions where they are being treated as bargaining chips in the fight for its immediate neighborhood.
America’s dominance is obviously not the same as it was 20 years ago, but Washington is still a global superpower. Paradoxically, China and Russia’s growing significance is fueling America’s power. This is because the stronger Beijing and Moscow become, the more aggressive they are toward their neighbors, who then turn to Washington.
Ukraine’s very clear desire — though for now, not a very realistic one — to join NATO is the direct result of Russian policy. In Southeast Asia, a developing axis between Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi is, in turn, a reaction to China abandoning the advice of long-time leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping — to disguise its power.
The U.S. might be losing its influence when compared to its rivals, but at the same time, it is thanks to them that it maintains, creates and rebuilds a system of alliances that leverages its power. In both Central and Eastern Europe as well as in Southeast Asia, American military presence is treated as a source of stability, not destabilization, and as a guarantor of freedom, not enslavement. In terms of the ability to build alliances, the U.S. still remains the only superpower.
Army Like No Other
In a more rational sense, America’s defense budget exceeds the combined military spending of China, Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain, India, Japan, South Korea and several other countries. Even taking into consideration the fact that China, as well as Russia, is not revealing true numbers when it comes to military spending, and at the same time, they buy equipment at much lower prices than America, American military spending, not to mention its technological advantage, remains beyond the reach of Beijing and Moscow. The American economy is consistently the most innovative in the world, and it is the greatest contributor to global gross domestic product.
9/11 weakened the U.S. only in the same sense that Pearl Harbor weakened America 70 years ago. It showed that the U.S. is vulnerable to attack. It also turned out that attacking the U.S. was a mistake because you could not win against the United States. Washington, after all, did not lose the war with al-Qaida.
The Benefits from Islamic State
What’s more, by withdrawing from Afghanistan today (and earlier from Iraq), Americans are de facto depriving jihadis of the reasons to fight. According to many experts, the Americans, by letting the Islamic State conquer a considerable part of Iraq and Syria, and now by handing over power to the Taliban in Afghanistan, have shown weakness. But is that really true? Is America’s role to get entangled in never-ending wars?
By not losing the war, but at the same time not being able to win it (since no one has ever won a battle with guerrilla forces), Americans found a plan B. The emergence of the Islamic State group was in some sense salutary. It turned out that normal Muslims had to reach for the weapons, defeat jihadis and refrain from cheering them on, since jihadis, apart from their hatred for the U.S., were mostly busy with murdering Muslims themselves. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the Taliban, who 20 years ago would not allow girls to get an education, now allow women to attend universities.
Numerous observers, including those below, who saw a helicopter over the U.S. embassy in Kabul saw parallels with the famous photo from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, from which helicopters conducted evacuations in 1975. In terms of propaganda, the similarity was indeed striking. The difference, however, is that in the case of Saigon, the evacuation took place after the collapse of the U.S.-backed South Vietnam regime. In the case of Kabul, the Taliban who entered the city signed an agreement with the U.S. to transfer power to them.
Above all, all those who compare Kabul to Saigon miss the fact that the fall of Saigon had no special significance. Barely 15 years later, it was Americans and not the Soviets supporting North Vietnam, who won the Cold War. The fall of Saigon, as it turned out later, was a mere episode.
Speaking of America’s successes, it is hard not to mention its failures, or what have turned out to be false assumptions.
First, the invasion of Iraq, carried out under completely false pretexts, was a mistake. (The fact that it resulted in toppling Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship does not matter.) The invasion of Iraq was a mistake not because Americans turned out to be incapable of managing an occupied Iraq where they destroyed state structures, for example, by removing officials from work who belonged to the Baath Party and dissolving the army, but because they lost the position of the superpower that always does the right thing.
It was a mistake to use brutal interrogation methods at Abu Ghraib prisons in Iraq and at Bagram in Afghanistan (and who knows if that included Poland as well). It was a mistake to set up a prison at Guantanamo, where people were indeed deprived of the right to counsel. It was an omission and a folly to fail to create a successful program to deradicalize jihadis, the example of which was later the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who turned into a radical monster in an American prison.
In listing America’s sins, it’s worth mentioning that in the case of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were incomparably better than in any Russian selection camp in Chechnya, and the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that human rights activists were so eager to call torture, had nothing in common with pulling out nails, beatings, electroshock and other traditional torture.
The worst that Americans did in the worst of their prisons to the worst of the criminals was nothing when compared to what Russians did on a daily basis in Chechnya. This is worth keeping in mind. Unfortunately, this is what those who hate the U.S. clearly forget. They also miss the fact that all theaw objectively reprehensible practices were exposed by American media, which in fact show America’s strength, not weakness.
The basic conclusions are these:
In case of a necessary military intervention (which we saw in Afghanistan, where unlike Iraq, the U.S. had to conduct the invasion because the Taliban turned the country into a haven for terrorists), the U.S. and its allies need to have a clear objective. The objective should not be an attempt to build a modern, democratic state, but the elimination of terrorists, and later, stabilization of the country. Each military intervention, apart from the clearly defined objectives, needs to have an exit strategy.
In Muslim countries, democracy is not a universal rule, and a moderate military dictatorship might be a good solution from the point of view of stabilizing nations or in terms of Western interests, but also from the point of view of human rights (e.g., women’s rights, but also the rights of Christians and other minorities).
Countering terrorism requires fighting against corruption in Muslim countries, since it is poverty and a lack of prospects that drive people into the arms of jihadis. And the fight against already radicalized Islamists who already have begun down the path of terror in turn requires traditional intelligence (in-person reconnaissance, not electronic reconnaissance). It turns out that although terrorists indeed use the internet, even the best use of the internet is worthless when the key decisions are passed on orally by couriers.
The infiltration of terrorist cells is only a prelude to success. It’s necessary to exchange intelligence information between countries, and within countries among intelligence and police structures that tend to compete with each other.
The final conclusion — and at the same time, a dilemma — comes down to the fact that it is probably impossible to fight terrorism effectively without breaking the rules of liberal society and infringing on freedom for example, the freedom to communicate. By following the rules, it’s very easy, on the one hand, to fail to prevent another terror attack. But on the other hand, it’s equally easy to kill freedom in the name of security. And how we measure the balance between security and freedom is needed is a dilemma that we will need to face for at least another 20 years.