Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the largest terrorist attacks on its territory since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. A group of Al-Qaeda Islamist terrorists hijacked four planes with the aim of crashing them into four buildings emblematic of the United States: The Pentagon (center of the American military apparatus); the Capitol (symbol of the system of democratic freedoms); and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (emblem of capitalism.)
What happened next is known. The terrorists led by Osama bin Laden succeeded in bringing down the Twin Towers and attacking the Pentagon. The plane destined for the Capitol failed to reach its target due to the bravery of its passengers.
The death toll of these heinous attacks was 2,977 victims in addition to the images of thousands of civilians trapped in a burning World Trade Center, a Downtown New York full of wreckage, and a cloud of dust that remained tattooed in the collective minds of the country.
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Then-President George W. Bush, who had only been in office for months, vowed to mobilize the entire nation to bring the perpetrators of the attack, and any nation that supported them, to justice.
He had launched the war on terror.
September 11 and the war on terror
Just one month after the terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban who provided support and logistics to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and its leader Osama bin Laden.
Bush gave the Taliban an ultimatum to cease support for Al-Qaeda. The regime rejected the demands, so American forces mobilized and overthrew the Taliban with support from the Northern Coalition, a group of anti-Taliban fighters.
Two years after 9/11, Bush ordered the invasion Iraq, which was then ruled by tyrant Saddam Hussein. Hussein had been accused of developing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration named Iraq — along with Iran and North Korea — as a new “axis of evil” to be defeated.
After much internal and external controversy, the United States and several allies invaded Iraq and overthrew the bloodthirsty Hussein, who would be found and sentenced to death in 2006.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stalled after initial successes and with the new governments in Baghdad and Kabul unable to maintain order in their countries. In the former, a violent civil war raged between Sunni and Shiite forces. In Afghanistan, the Taliban maintained a strong presence in much of the nation.
Both wars quickly began to lose popularity within the U.S., affecting the image of outgoing President George W. Bush, while the newly elected Barack Obama promised to end both wars.
In Iraq, Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops by 2011. A move that left a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to emerge, bringing the Iraqi government closer to Iran and forcing the United States to reestablish a military presence in the country.
Despite American efforts in Afghanistan, bin Laden managed to evade justice for ten years, until an elite group of Navy SEALs found and killed him in 2011. The American military remained inside Afghanistan in order to help the Afghan government defeat the Taliban insurgency in the rest of the country.
By the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were complex. Despite bin Laden’s death, the Taliban still posed a serious threat in Afghanistan while the international community began a long offensive against the Islamic State.
The end of the war on terror
The offensive against the Islamic State was largely successful as the terrorist group lost control of large parts of the territory they had gained in 2015, while the war in Afghanistan was seen as a dead end. The emergence of new threats (such as China) detracted from the Afghan conflict, and Donald Trump came to the presidency promising to end the “endless wars.”
Trump dealt with the Taliban. The Taliban pledged not to attack American soldiers and to sever its ties with Al-Qaeda in exchange for a promise by the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-2021.
Biden, who took office in 2021, kept that agreement and decided to withdraw all soldiers by September 11, twenty years after the terrorist attacks that changed the world.
By early July, most American troops had already withdrawn from Afghanistan. And, although Biden had promised that the Afghan government would have the capacity to resist the Taliban for several months, the reality on the ground was very different and the Taliban ended up with total control of Afghanistan in less than two weeks.
Following Biden’s decision, the U.S. Army abruptly withdrew, leading to a chaotic evacuation under Taliban supervision. The withdrawal resulted in the gut-wrenching death of 13 U.S. servicemen and hundreds of Afghans, as well as dealing a heavy blow to the prestige and international image of the United States.
After twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, is the war on terror officially over? Only time will tell.