The 9/11 attacks, the most deadly act of terrorism in history, triggered conflicts and seismic social and political changes worldwide. It was arguably the most influential historical event of the early 21st century, and the human and economic investment mobilized in response has been staggering. The Taliban’s sweep back to power in Afghanistan has raised the stakes even higher for the role of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 as an occasion to try to make sense of the attacks and the wars that followed: what did they mean? And what must we learn from them?

To mark the anniversary, Saferworld and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung are launching an eight-part special series of the “WarPod” podcast called “Reckoning with 9/11.” The aim is to explore the global impacts of the attacks and of the response. As co-hosts of the series, we recall the many tragic episodes in these wars with expert guests who hail both from countries that mounted the response and from those at the receiving end of the accompanying military, political, economic, and societal efforts. (Links to articles at Just Security by some of the guests expanding on their remarks in the podcast series can be found below.) Clear lessons are elusive: it remains uncertain how the most wicked problems that dogged the “global war on terror” could and should have been solved.

Many of the challenges that stemmed from the war on terror were baked in from U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech to a packed Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. He framed the battle not as a specific effort to disband al-Qaeda but as a campaign against all terrorists and anyone considered to be a supporter. It was to be a struggle between good and evil, for the defense and expansion of freedom. Nations would be “either with us, or with the terrorists,” Bush proclaimed.

This expanded the objectives way beyond confronting those specifically plotting to attack the United States. The war ultimately would pursue aims ranging from establishing a viable non-Taliban state in Afghanistan to ousting the Union of Islamic Courts that took power in Somalia. Such expansive goals of remaking the power structure of whole societies have not only proven unattainable but have also triggered the metastasizing violent movements that have proven impossible to defeat.

This approach also meant that for the United States, the first question to other governments would no longer be “Do you share our democratic values?” but “Do you oppose terrorism?” Many of the world’s least palatable governments could answer “yes” to the latter question, ushering in an era in which counterterrorism has become a weapon wielded by authoritarian governments the world over against perceived opponents and troublemakers.

Good vs. Evil Framing

The good vs. evil framing of the war also led the United States and others to largely sideline political paths out of endless war: after the United States ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, surrendering Taliban leaders who were open to reconciliation had no path back into politics until they had embarked on a violent campaign to reclaim power. Likewise in Iraq, members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party and jettisoned personnel from the security forces that the U.S.-led coalition disbanded wholesale would not be allowed to play a role in securing and reconstructing their country, and many of them then formed the nucleus of the Sunni insurgency that mired the United States and its allies in Iraq for years to come.

One thing that our conversations in the podcast series do make clear is that invading Iraq was the single biggest mistake of the war on terror. By following through on a predetermined impulse to make an example out of Saddam Hussein, with no evidence of a link between his regime and al-Qaeda and based on unreliable intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. and the U.K. unleashed cataclysmic effects. They squandered their legitimacy on the world stage and generated intense anger among Muslims and others who were appalled at the violence unleashed in Iraq. The dismantling of the Iraqi state left no means to provide security or services to address the demands of by-then-enraged Iraqis.

In order to keep planning on track for the Iraq invasion, the U.S. had chosen in 2002 not to kill or capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who had a small al-Qaeda sponsored training camp in a remote part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, Colin Powell would essentially increase al-Zarqawi’s fame as part of the justification for the war that he outlined to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. Thus, rather than helping combat al-Qaeda, the impending U.S. invasion drew thousands of jihadist fighters into Iraq. By 2004, the United States had created a disastrous environment in which al-Zarqawi could build al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Zarqawi’s insurgency would pose the biggest challenge yet to the coalition forces and unleash a brutal sectarian civil war. After the United States killed al-Zarqawi in a 2006 air strike, his successor went on to rebrand AQI as the “Islamic State of Iraq” and then spread its ruthlessness into Syria.

This is why the Iraq war now appears as the biggest mistake of all. But what is harder to reckon with is what the U.S., the U.K., and others could and should have done once that mistake was made. As the wars dragged on unexpectedly, military strategies evolved, with greater reliance on “remote warfare” tactics that enabled the United States and others to be less physically present while engaging across an expanding battlefield. Many governments have also tried investing in less-militaristic options to stop the growth of violent rebel movements, tactics such as the now ubiquitous programs for “countering violent extremism” (CVE). These have been producing, at best, unclear results.

The Biggest Questions

So, after two decades of experience and countless inspectors’ reports and inquiries, disagreements remain over the biggest questions: in the face of unrelenting terror attacks, how can nations interested in supporting democratic and rights-respecting elements in societies abroad provide security for those processes without killing so many civilians and destroying so many homes and farms that they only end up creating more enemies? How can they stop the governments they are propping up from being intolerably corrupt, cruel or sectarian? How can they help partner security forces reach the point where they are both willing and able to provide security to local men, women and children, and to stay the course after external powers leave, often in the face of opponents prepared to die for their cause? How can they convince populations experiencing violence and predatory behaviors from all sides that “stabilization” will be the best option? How do they persuade regional powers like Iran, Syria, or Pakistan if not to play a constructive role, at least permit a way forward compatible with their national interests?

Even after the militaries of the United States and its allies are mostly out of Iraq and out of Afghanistan, these questions remain highly relevant in Africa’s Sahel region and in Libya, where coalitions continue to prosecute the war on terror. But in scouring the parched battlegrounds for lessons and answers, what is also striking is that the best minds of the U.S. and other governments knew these were the biggest questions, and in some instances gave of their best to find answers.

For example, Ben Barry, who wrote the official British military analysis of the Iraq campaigns, notes in his insightful book, “Blood, Metal and Dust,” that U.S. Army General David Petraeus led an adaptation of the American approach in Iraq after the calamitous turn of events that followed the 2003 invasion. In June 2007, Petraeus’ first two requirements for American forces were:

  1. Secure the people where they sleep. Population security is our primary mission.[…]
  2. Give the people justice and honor. Second only to security, bringing justice to the people and restoring their honor is the key task.

While the United States failed to sustain this strategy by continuing to provide security to the population and effectively challenging corrupt and sectarian governance, Petraeus’ approach did make a difference in walking Iraq back from the horrors unleashed by al-Zarqawi. Likewise in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal and others pushed hard to minimize civilian casualties, tackle corruption, and improve the prospects for its beleaguered people. For a decade and a half, the United States did try to find ways to reset the relationship with Pakistan’s leaders, its military, and its intelligence service, and yet it was unable to overcome divergent interests and countervailing factors. From 2009, the United States was trying to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban and bring the Afghan government into these negotiations.

Consensus is Elusive

Despite all the recent commentary about the collapse of Western strategy in Afghanistan, it doesn’t feel like we are moving to a consensus about how things could have been managed toward different outcomes once initial early mistakes had been made. When we have asked our guests what lessons they draw from the war on terror, they have hesitated. Without giving up on vital principles like human rights and participation in decision-making, they stress the importance of not being too ambitious about imposing radically unfamiliar values and ways of governing onto other societies; of thinking carefully, and having clear objectives and exit strategies in mind before militarily intervening; and of dramatically improving efforts to avoid civilian casualties, which will require more honest acknowledgement when they occur and constant reassessment of how to avoid them.

They also tend to discourage categorizing conflicting parties into “good” versus “evil” players – knowing that stability rarely occurs without being prepared to look early on for a political way to end a conflict and pursue reconciliation with anyone who can be reconciled.

In every case, it is vital to avoid what might be the greatest failure of all throughout the war on terror: overlooking the people who live in and around the battlefield. Perhaps that starts with not seeing other countries as “battlefields” at all, and then making sure that decision-making prioritizes people’s security and well-being and provides them with an alternative that is inarguably better than that provided by armed opposition groups. While some programs and leaders undoubtedly have pressed for such approaches, they were too often overwhelmed by failed militarized strategies and tactics.

The result is that the war on terror has dragged on, militants remain undefeated, and state-building – and the respect for human rights that it should imbue – is in pieces. Given that so many questions remain unanswered and contentious 20 years on, the process of reckoning with 9/11 is important, and should involve carefully listening to the experiences of women and men who have borne the brunt of its impact. This reflection should spur politicians, officials, and the publics in the United States and its allied countries to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of military intervention and how they can best promote peace and security for the future well-being of people both at home and across an ever-more-interconnected world.

Other articles at Just Security by guests on the “WarPod” special series “Reckoning with 9/11” can be found at these links as they are published:

The Failure of Transitional Justice in Afghanistan: Impunity Turned Into Law by Huma Saeed

Iraqi Elections, Coming Again Soon, Still Don’t Deliver Democracy by Renad Mansour

Insight Into Biden’s Counterterrorism Thinking Suggests More of the Same by Annie Shiel, Jordan Street, and Abigail Watson

IMAGE: US President George W. Bush speaks Nov. 8, 2001, at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Bush urged US citizens to help meet the “great national challenge” of eradicating terrorism, and to cherish the national unity and sense of purpose that emerged from the ashes of September 11 terror strikes. (Photo by LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images)