Capstones: End of an Endless War?
In the autumn of 2001, political scientist Simon Serfaty braced the world for “the wars of 9/11”—an open-ended campaign of campaigns that would extend far beyond al-Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, even with U.S. troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, the wars of 9/11 continue.
We sometimes forget that the first of these wars was launched by the passengers and crew of United Flight 93—“the first ones to fight al-Qaeda,” as Rob O’Neill of SEAL Team Six observes. “They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world,” adds Paul Greengrass, who directed the film United 93. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the objective of United 93’s hijackers was to attack “symbols of the American Republic: the Capitol or the White House.” But the enemy was “defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93.” The logic of their response to the attacks would shape America’s post-9/11 campaign of campaigns for much of the subsequent 20 years: Far better to take the fight to this enemy than to wait for another blow.
Eagles in the Sky
On Sept. 12, 2001, Air National Guard, Air Force and Navy fighters began defending America’s skies from another 9/11, as part of Operation Noble Eagle, which continues to this day. Noble Eagle was augmented by Operation Eagle Assist—NATO’s first deployment of assets to support operations in the continental United States. NATO’s AWACS planes flew 360 sorties over America’s skies, freeing up U.S. assets to target Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda partners.
U.S. combat operations targeting Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and the Taliban commenced October 7, 2001. By late November, CIA paramilitaries, Special Ops units, regular forces, and joint airpower had toppled the Taliban and flattened al-Qaeda. Once the Taliban was overthrown, President Bush faced a choice: declare victory, bring the troops home and leave Afghanistan to the tender mercies of Taliban leftovers and Pakistan (which helped create the Taliban); or address the root causes of Afghanistan’s perpetual status as a failed state, lay the foundations of a government committed to fighting terrorists rather than harboring terrorists, and guard against al-Qaeda’s return. President Bush chose the latter—and understandably so: Given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda shared the same worldview and same enemy, he concluded that eradicating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan was not enough to protect the United States. Thus, the small-footprint war of late 2001 morphed into a large-scale nation-building operation spanning nearly two decades.
Nine-eleven triggered a debate in Washington over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing that Islamabad was doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service and military, the other that Islamabad was complicit in what its intelligence operatives did and what its military didn’t do. That debate was settled when SEAL Team Six found bin Laden living in a mansion just north of Pakistan’s capital—quite literally hiding in plain sight, in a city that serves as host to Pakistan’s military academy and a retirement destination for Pakistan’s military brass. That awful evidence prompted then-Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen to say of Pakistan, “Support of terrorism is part of their national strategy.” Even before the bin Laden strike, President Obama observed, “al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”
As for Pakistan’s role in spreading that cancer into Afghanistan, “Much of the Taliban leadership was trained in madrassas located in Pakistan,” according to a study led by former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. “Safe havens in Pakistan…allow the Taliban and other groups to pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Given Islamabad’s actions and inaction, it’s no surprise the U.S. has conducted 414 drone strikes targeting terrorists in Pakistan since 2004.
In a sense, 9/11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible? One by one, the Bush administration answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why 9/11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam’s Iraq: The latter didn’t plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how Washington dealt with Moscow throughout the Cold War.
A U.S.-led multinational force rapidly toppled Saddam’s terrorist tyranny and captured Saddam a few months later, but that initial success gave way to a brutal postwar war. Whether or not Saddam’s Iraq was a front in the war on terror (as President Clinton argued in the 1990s, and as President Bush and Congress concluded in the 2000s) or to be avoided as a “dumb…rash war” (as President Obama contended), Saddam’s Iraq was undeniably a threat to regional stability and U.S. interests. It pays to recall that Saddam’s Iraq had bankrolled and/or provided safe haven to terrorists from Palestine Liberation Front, Abu Nidal Organization and al-Qaeda; made war against four of its neighbors; developed and unleashed WMDs; and menaced and seized some of the world’s largest oil reserves. In short, Iraq isn’t an open wound today because America intervened; America intervened because Iraq was an open wound. As evidence, August 2021 marked 31 years America has been wrestling with the problem of Iraq.
Media mantras notwithstanding, the U.S. was not alone in Iraq. Thirty-seven nations deployed troops to Iraq. More than 100,000 Brits, 20,000 South Koreans, 13,900 Poles, 6,100 Japanese and 2,400 Aussies cycled through Iraq. They made real sacrifices: 1,952 coalition troops were wounded; 322 were killed. Likewise, some 50 nations contributed to the Sisyphean combat-peacekeeping-stabilization-counterterrorism-counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. Some 69,000 Afghan security personnel died fighting for their country’s future. More than 1,100 allied personnel—Australian, British, Canadian, European, Jordanian, Korean, Turkish—were killed in Afghanistan. And as Afghan operations came to a close this year—20 years after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America’s largest city and America’s military headquarters—74 percent of the troops deployed in the forever-broken country that spawned 9/11 were not American.
The U.S. has conducted 374 manned airstrikes, drone strikes and direct-action ground operations in Yemen, home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The first of these strikes was conducted in late 2002, when a U.S. Predator drone tracked and killed the terrorist responsible for the 2000 USS Cole attack.
From 2002 until early 2015, a U.S. Joint Special Operations taskforce partnered with Philippine forces to assist Manila in a largely successful fight against terrorist groups. American commandos and Marines have been killed in this forgotten front of the war on terror.
Led by Gen. David Petraeus, the surge of U.S. forces into Iraq in 2007-08 rescued Iraq from civil war, salvaged the U.S. effort in Iraq and decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The Pentagon consensus was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey explained in characterizing the stance of the Pentagon’s civilian-military leadership. But President Obama long viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a mistake to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. Hence, there was nothing surprising about his decision to withdraw from Iraq. Regrettably, nor was there anything surprising about the results: Without the steadying hand of America’s military, sectarian tensions exploded; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used the remnants of AQI as the building blocks for ISIS; Baghdad was nearly overrun; and ISIS declared a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East.
ISIS was nothing less than a jihadist superpower. At its highpoint, ISIS controlled 43,000 square miles of Iraq and Syria, enslaved almost 8 million people, and commanded a terrorist army of 65,000. As proof of its savage piety, Baghdadi’s terror state burned alive prisoners of war; carried out genocide against Yazidis and Christians; sold children into slavery; used mentally-challenged people as suicide bombers; deployed sulfur-mustard gas; and conducted a systematic campaign of rape.
After withdrawing American troops from Iraq, President Obama predictably rushed American troops back into Iraq 30 months later. Thus began America’s third war in Iraq in a quarter-century. The Obama administration’s decision to return to Iraq blunted the ISIS blitzkrieg, protected Baghdad and rescued the Yazidis. The Trump administration’s unfettered air campaign against ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq then eviscerated ISIS as a fighting force, erased the ISIS caliphate and liberated 7.7 million people. In 2019, U.S. commandos eliminated Baghdadi.
Iran is not so much a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime. From its founding in 1979, Iran has waged a terrorist-guerilla war against America. When U.S. forces swept Saddam from power, Tehran dialed up its terror assault on America. A U.S. Army report details how Iran’s Quds Force provided “guidance, training, logistics and financial support” and “IED training” to Iraqi militias. As a direct result, at least 608 American troops and civilians were killed in Iraq, hundreds more maimed. The man who commanded the Quds Force was Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq by a 2020 U.S. strike. Given that Soleimani was a terrorist leader who ordered, facilitated and bankrolled terrorist attacks against U.S. personnel, his killing was very much in line with the bin Laden and Baghdadi raids—and very much a part of the war on terror. Indeed, it bears repeating what the 9/11 Commission revealed many years ago: “There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.”
Thankfully, most terror attacks targeting the U.S. post-9/11 have been near-misses: A terrorist trained by al-Qaeda tried to blow up a Miami-bound flight in late 2001, but he failed to activate the bomb. An AQAP-trained terrorist lit himself on fire trying to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight in 2009. A terrorist trained by the Pakistani Taliban loaded a pickup with explosives in an attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, but the device failed to detonate. Even so, in the years since 9/11, there have been several mass-casualty jihadist attacks in America: In 2009, an Army major radicalized by jihadists killed 13 at Ft. Hood. In 2013, two brothers radicalized by Chechen jihadists murdered four and wounded 170 in Boston. In 2015, a husband-and-wife team that pledged allegiance to ISIS murdered 14 in San Bernardino. That same year, an AQAP-inspired terrorist killed four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga. In 2016, a man linked to ISIS killed 49 people in Orlando. In 2017, another jihadist expressing allegiance to ISIS murdered eight people in Manhattan. In 2019, an AQAP-linked jihadist killed three sailors in Pensacola.
The initial U.S.-NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which aimed to protect civilian populations from Moammar Qaddafi’s vengeance, was not related to the war on terror. The chapters that followed, however, surely belong in the long history of the wars of 9/11: Al-Qaeda operatives began recruiting and training fighters in Libya. An al-Qaeda-linked group attacked and killed U.S. diplomats in Benghazi. ISIS planted roots in the war-torn country, carried out beastly mass-murders of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians, launched car-bombings against government authorities, seized gas fields, and took control of the city of Sirte. In response, Washington launched 550 airstrikes in Libya between 2012 and 2020, and deployed commandos to fight ISIS.
In 2002, an old French base in the East African nation of Djibouti became the jumping-off point for U.S. expeditionary forces fighting jihadists in Africa, Yemen, the Gulf of Aden and the West Indian Ocean. The base has grown into a key front in the wars of 9/11, with some 3,000 U.S. personnel deployed there. U.S. commandos, F-15s, drones, V-22s, strike drones and transport planes have all been based in Djibouti. Some 6,000 U.S troops are spread across AFRICOM’s area of responsibility. A recent study revealed 36 codenamed U.S. operations in Africa—more than half related to counterterrorism. AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen Townsend describes a “wildfire of terrorism” across the region.
U.S. forces were fighting jihadists in Somalia long before we knew the name of the enemy. In 1993, Farah Aidid’s militia brought down two American helicopters and cut down 18 American troops in Mogadishu. “My companions fought with Farah Aidid’s forces against the U.S. troops in Somalia,” bin Laden later revealed. In 2007, U.S. warplanes targeted the chief planner of al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in southern Somalia. That same year, the U.S. Navy struck terror bases along the coast of Somalia. In 2011, Somalia’s al-Shabaab merged with al-Qaeda, prompting Washington to expand airstrikes and Special Operations missions on the Horn of Africa. By late 2020, there were 800 U.S. troops in Somalia. There have been 263 manned airstrikes, drone strikes and direct-action ground operations in Somalia since 2006.
All told, U.S. forces have seen combat in at least 13 African nations since 9/11, and they’ve been killed and wounded in Kenya, Libya, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia.
Know Your Enemy
One of the hardest things for Americans to understand about the wars of 9/11 is that, 20 years in, we may be closer to the beginning than the end. To those who have been listening, this comes as no surprise. Just days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush braced Americans for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” In October 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, speculated that the war on terror “may last 50 years.”
Still, sensing the war-weariness of the American people, three successive administrations have worked to wind down the wars of 9/11. Petraeus counters that “ending U.S. involvement in ‘endless wars’ doesn’t necessarily end the wars…it just ends our participation. And withdrawing U.S. forces from the so-called ‘endless wars’ against Islamist extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere could result in an escalation of the conflicts.” Indeed, al-Qaeda still has branches in Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Burkino Faso, Mali, Niger; India, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh and Myanmar. ISIS has a presence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Libya, Philippines and West Africa. The FBI revealed in 2018 it had 1,000 active investigations into ISIS-inspired individuals in all 50 states.
Bin Laden warned that his cult of killers “do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” That became obvious on 9/11, when bin Laden’s men killed 2,753 people at the World Trade Center; 184 people at the Pentagon; and 40 people on United Flight 93. A little girl not yet three was the youngest person murdered that terrible Tuesday.
Americans are still dying from bin Laden’s war: 420 people have died of cancers related to the 9/11 attacks; 204 New York City firefighters and 241 police officers have died of 9/11-related illnesses; 10,000 Americans have been diagnosed with cancers linked to the 9/11 attacks.
Since 9/11, there have been 2,461 U.S. troops killed and more than 20,000 wounded supporting Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (the most recent of them during last month’s frenetic evacuation); 130 U.S. troops killed and 56 wounded in other post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts in Cuba, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen; 4,505 U.S. troops killed and 32,292 wounded in Operations Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn; 102 U.S. troops killed and 238 wounded supporting Operation Inherent Resolve (campaign against ISIS) in Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, and the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf and Red Sea. More than 2.77 million U.S. military personnel have served on 5.4 million deployments since 9/11.
The Bush administration was derided in some circles for the name it gave to the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns, but it is in every way a “global war on terrorism.” First, it’s global. Just glance at the previous paragraph. Second, it’s a war. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.” Some bristle at the “war on terror” phraseology. Since terrorism is a method or tactic, they counter, it cannot be fought—let alone defeated—like an enemy. Yet the civilized world has, in the past, defeated and/or marginalized tactics deemed uncivilized. Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and genocide.
Given what U.S. policymakers allowed to transpire in Afghanistan over the past 12 months, the operational codenames Washington gave to America’s 20-year Afghanistan project—Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel and Resolute Support—are not just tragically ironic. They are bitter reminders that all the blood and treasure expended in this main front of the global war on terror did not succeed at targeting the root causes of 9/11. That said, the wars of 9/11 have secured some real victories: They shifted the front overseas, put the enemy on the defensive and forced the enemy to expend precious resources on basic survival. Many of our enemies have not survived: Along with bin Laden, Baghdadi, Saddam and Soleimani, al-Qaeda operations-chief Muhammad Atef, Taliban leader Muhammad Omar, AQI leader Musab Zarqawi, AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki—terrorists all—have been sent to wherever mass-murderers go after they meet their Maker. Thousands of their followers have been killed. Nine-eleven mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is in a cage in Guantanamo Bay, along with dozens of his fellow jihadists. The ISIS caliphate is gone. And Iraq is no longer a patron state of terror. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have scarred America deeply, it pays to recall that America’s military liberated 24 million Iraqis and 22 million Afghans from truly horrific regimes—and built for the Afghan and Iraqi people a bridge back to civilization. Their inability or unwillingness to make it across that bridge is not America’s fault.
Out of Afghanistan
“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan….I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth,” President Biden soberly declared, as he laid out his withdrawal plan. America’s military saluted and carried out the plan with dispatch. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives,” President Biden concluded. “It’s time to end the forever war.”
He made good on his word, but the catastrophe that has followed was predictable and indeed predicted by the Center for America’s Purpose (see here, here, here, here) and many others. Without the “means to pressure extremist networks” in Afghanistan, Petraeus warned in 2019 of “full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary.” Re-establishment is the operative word. From its earliest days in power, the Taliban made common cause with jihadist-terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. What was true in the 1990s remains true in 2021: The UN reports that “the Taliban continue to be the primary partner” for virtually every terrorist group operating in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, the “Taliban maintains close ties to al-Qaeda.” Al-Qaeda has a presence in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. There are some 1,500 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, and intelligence agencies warn that number could grow to 10,000 as the group recruits dispossessed Afghan men to its ranks. A resurgent ISIS has already carried out bloody attacks against the U.S. in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie plans “to go after al-Qaeda and ISIS from…other locations in the theater.” But Petraeus is not so sanguine. “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay strategically and economically if al-Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there,” Petraeus warns. Manhattan’s skyline offers a reminder of what that price entails.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the American Legion Magazine.