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Twenty years ago terrorists challenged the world's only remaining superpower. In response, the United States declared a "war on terror." The world continues to struggle with the consequences.
Twenty years have passed since the September 11 attacks. At Ground Zero in New York, the towers of a new World Trade Center rise above the skyline, and there is a memorial to the nearly 3,000 victims of the attacks. The city has bounced back and now has more residents than in 2001. Until the pandemic, the economy was booming.
But nothing is how it was in the US, large parts of the Middle East, and Afghanistan. The Taliban may be back, but when a terrorist attack recently killed some 170 Afghans and more than a dozen US soldiers during an evacuation operation at Kabul airport, it was the so-called "Islamic State" that claimed responsibility. That organization did not even exist 20 years ago when the "war on terror" began. Its emergence is closely linked to how the "war on terror" has been carried out.
"We know very well that the rise of IS was a direct result of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003," Bernd Greiner says. In an interview with DW, the Hamburg historian explains that a large part of the initial IS fighters came from Saddam Hussein's old army. "It was disbanded by the United States from one moment to the next. That left hundreds of thousands of young men on the street with no prospects of employment. That kind of thing is humus for radicalization."
In 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, a symbol of economic power, and attacked the Pentagon, the center of US military power. Those attacks traumatized the US. Using nothing more than box cutters, men directed by Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden turned passenger planes into weapons. It was an unprecedented humiliation for a country that seemed at the zenith of its power. A dozen years after winning the Cold War following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US seemed invincible.
After the attacks, the US was engulfed by national sorrow and had the solidarity of the entire world. Then came anger and retribution which found understanding. For the first time in NATO's history, its mutual defense clause was invoked. In a military operation legitimized by the UN Security Council as an act of self-defense, NATO allies overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in a matter of months.
When then-President George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, there was no longer any such legitimacy. There were false claims alone about Saddam Hussein's links to the September. 11 bombers and equally false claims that the Iraqi dictator was producing weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Colin Powell presented false claims on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN
Many American politicians saw an opportunity after September 11 to demonstrate that the US was the world's "indispensable nation," says US historian Stephen Wertheim in an interview with DW. "They demonstrated this 'indispensability' by trying to remake an entire country and an entire region of the world."
Bernd Greiner sees another motive: "In its powerlessness and impotence in the face of this type of asymmetric attack, the US wanted to demonstrate to the world, and especially to the Arab world that whoever messes with us in the future has forfeited his right to exist." The historian sees both wars as also being highly symbolic acts.
Supporting Greiner's thesis is the fact that just a few weeks after September 11, the White House instructed the Pentagon to draft scenarios for a war against Iraq. When Henry Kissinger was asked by George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson why he supported the Iraq war, he said, "Because Afghanistan wasn't enough." America's radical opponents in the Muslim world wanted to humiliate the United States, "so we must humiliate them."
The "war on terror" proclaimed by Bush became a liminal war. A war "that is not precisely defined, neither temporally nor geographically. It is being waged globally," as Johannes Thimm, a US expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs defines it. The "Cost of War" project of Brown University says the US government is carrying out anti-terror measures in a total of 85 countries. Their team, consisting of more than 50 academics, legal experts, and human rights activists, calculated that in the "war on terror" a total of nearly 930,000 people have been killed directly as a result of combat operations, almost 400,000 of them civilians.
World public opinion reacted with shock in 2010 when WikiLeaks revealed the true face of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And to the publication of the "Collateral Murder" video which documented the murder of civilians in Baghdad.
The reputation of the US was also damaged because it ignored the law of war. In an interview with DW, Thimm cites the official reintroduction of torture under a different name. "There is also a reason why this is not called torture, but rather 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' because torture is simply and unequivocally prohibited by international law."
Those violations include the detention of suspects for decades in completely lawless spaces, such as the US naval base at Guantanamo. And above all, the killing of terror suspects in drone attacks.
In an interview with DW, political scientist Julian Junk of the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research states with regard to terrorist networks in Europe and Germany "we can see that the extralegal methods in the 'War on Terror' have had a mobilizing effect on Salafist and jihadist groups."
According to the Cost of War, the 20-year "war on terror" has cost the US the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion. This could easily pay for current US President Joe Biden's infrastructure program several times over. That is why US expert Bernd Greiner believes that "the US has massively damaged itself through these insane expenditures for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"There are so many other worthy ventures to which the United States could have directed its vast people and resources," says Wertheim, "instead of responding destructively to the September 11 attack."
This article has been translated from German.