It was a fine September day, early in the new term in a busy comprehensive school. I was doing some admin in my office when the Computer Studies teacher called me into his classroom. Having dismissed his last class, he had switched the wall-mounted TV to the news. This had prompted his call to me. Something terrible had happened in New York.
The large screen was filled with the shocking image of smoke billowing from the two towers of the World Trade Center. The news-stream was bringing the pictures to us in real time. Other teachers joined us. As we watched in horror, the South Tower collapsed. It was 2.59pm in the UK, 9.59am in New York. We could not believe what we were seeing. Then, to compound the already appalling situation, the North Tower fell. Again, we watched it go down as it happened. It was 3.28pm in the UK, 10.28am in New York. We could scarcely comprehend what we had witnessed. Clearly, vast numbers of people had died. And something else was also apparent: the world had changed, as we watched.
Now – after the summer that witnessed the tragic scenes accompanying the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan (an involvement triggered by 9/11) – is a fitting time to identify ways in which the last twenty years have been shaped by the events of September 2001.
An era of Western overreach
Confidence in the West, regarding the apparent ideological triumph of Western liberal democracy and the free market in the wake of the collapse of Soviet communism, led to the peak of influence in the US of so-called right-wing 'neocons' during the presidency of George W. Bush (2001–9). This influence was supported by many in the US evangelical community.
When 9/11 occurred, Russia was a shadow of its former self and China had not yet risen to a position from which it could challenge US global dominance. The US was the only global superpower. And yet it found itself under attack by a terrorist group that brought death and destruction to the American homeland.
In this one experience, a sense of vulnerability became combined with a confident resolve that the US was powerful enough to mount global military operations capable of permanently ending the kind of threat posed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. This overconfidence would explain much of what next occurred.
The start of the 'forever wars'
The 9/11 attacks led directly to operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan in October 2001. This was hardly surprising, since it was from there that the 9/11 attacks had been masterminded. The problem was: what was the 'end game' of such an action? Failure to adequately define this, combined with confidence in Western capabilities to enact regime-change, contributed to twenty tragic years of expenditure of blood and treasure, in what became known as the 'forever wars.'
Beginning with air operations, there were soon US boots on the ground, in alliance with anti-Taliban Afghan forces and a coalition of Western allies. The rapid collapse of the Taliban and the flight of Osama bin Laden seemed to signal victory. In April 2002 Bush called for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and alluded to the Marshall Plan that had rebuilt Europe after WWII; but the ambitious words were not matched by a sufficiently coherent strategy to achieve the goal in such a complex country. More importantly, what had started as a massive counter-terrorism operation, was now morphing into nation-building for which the West was ill-prepared. As importantly, the eyes of Bush and the neocons were turning elsewhere. Before the job was done in Afghanistan, it was the turn of Iraq.
Bush and his advisers were now promoting and planning the invasion of Iraq, in close cooperation with PM Blair in the UK. What followed, in 2003, led to much of the turbulence that has characterised the Middle East in the years after that invasion.
There was no credible connection between the secular, and nationalist, Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda but, arguably, there was much unfinished business from the First Gulf War. In addition, Bush was determined to confront a group of states (North Korea, Iran and Iraq) that he described as the "axis of evil." It was a global grand strategy which ignored the fact that none of these states had sponsored 9/11.
Intelligence information was deployed in the most creative and disingenuous ways to justify the invasion of Iraq, as if it was a logical extension of the Afghan policy and a legitimate response to 9/11. The deeply unpleasant nature of Saddam's regime was not in doubt. What was in doubt was the legal and strategic argument in favour of the invasion.
I wrote to the PM in 2003 pointing out that the planned military action would fracture the fragile combination of communities that made up Iraq and, as a consequence, destabilise the Middle East. At the same time, it would undermine any semblance of international legality that might exist via the United Nations. History shows how much attention was paid to arguments such as these. Iraq became another 'forever war.' And with it came the expenditure of yet more blood...yet more treasure...
Then Western intervention failed to transform and stabilise Libya in 2011-14. As a result, Syria, between 2013 and 2019, became a study in indecision under Obama; and then extreme fluctuation, culminating in the abandonment of allies, under Trump.
A Middle Eastern tragedy
As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, a new interminable conflict had begun to engulf Iraq and the region. Huge numbers of civilians there would join the list of military casualties. Sectarian hatreds burst from confinement. Iran gained hugely from the disintegration of Iraq; and ISIS also emerged as a direct result. What came next in Syria had its own dynamic – but many of the key players had already been (unintentionally) put in place. The world is still living with a Middle Eastern turbulence that has the response to 9/11 as one of its recent contributory factors.
For Christian communities in the Middle East the Western intervention since 2003 has been nothing less than a disaster. Bush soon switched his terminology from "This crusade, this war on terrorism," to just "war on terror" but the damage had been done. Across the Middle East the word 'crusade' is freighted with medieval meanings, try as Westerners might to explain that the twenty-first-century campaign was not a war against Islam.
Ancient Christian communities – as supposed allies of the 'crusaders' – became slated for destruction, by Islamist extremists. In 2015, when a group affiliated to ISIS beheaded Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, the video released was addressed to "crusaders." Those murdered were made to wear orange jumpsuits in imitation of those worn by detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
Across the Middle East, Christians have died in huge numbers and their communities have been massively reduced as thousands have fled from persecution. Rarely do they appear as a distinct community when the victims of Middle Eastern violence are listed. Western Christians who have been, at times, supportive of US-led policies in the Middle East might want to reflect on the trauma that this has imposed on these – too often forgotten – members of the household of faith. Persecution of Christians in other parts of the world increased at the same time.
War on the 'Home Front'
Another feature of the post-9/11 landscape has been Islamist terrorist attacks on Western 'home targets.' The 7/7 suicide-bomb attacks on the London transport network in 2005, the slaughter at Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015, and the 2016 Brussels suicide-bombings are examples of terrorist acts that characterise the years after 2001. These were both reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks and also murderous responses to the Western interventions that had followed. The shock of the attacks was increased by the fact that they were often carried out by citizens drawn from minority communities within the countries where the attacks occurred.
At the same time – and as a direct consequence – heightened surveillance by the intelligence services, alongside increased security arrangements at airports and other transport hubs, became a characteristic of the world post-9/11. The war on terror was not only being fought abroad.
Losing the moral high ground
The understandable desire to come to grips with the perpetrators of 9/11 caused the US (and key allies) to surrender the moral high ground in many areas, even while stating the justness of their cause. Standing for an international rule-based system – except when the UN proved difficult; promoting the rule of law – except when 'extraordinary rendition,' CIA 'black site' interrogation centres, and Guantanamo Bay offered a more expeditious way to deal with enemies; supporting humane treatment of those accused of criminal acts –except when defining waterboarding as not constituting torture. These things have effects. They are corrosive. They have been a real – though by no means inevitable – outcome of 9/11.
What next? Pivot to the East?
The response to 9/11 aimed to construct Western-style democracies in Kabul and Baghdad. Instead, the US-led intervention led to insurgencies in Iraq and the eventual regrouping of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US could not prevent Pakistan from aiding the Taliban, nor could it stop Shi'ite Iran from gaining influence in Iraq. What morphed from counter-terrorism into a campaign to impose democracy by military intervention, actually prompted a new wave of anti-US and anti-West sentiment and empowered Islamist fundamentalism.
In the twentieth year since 9/11, the end of US involvement in Afghanistan is part of a step-back from confident, open-ended, interventions. US ambitions abroad have been narrowed by the cost of these years. This will have a profound effect on the US as a global player over the next decade. There will be counter-terrorist operations, but not regime-change nor nation-building.
However, this should not be overstated. The Chinese, for example, should not interpret the current US position as one of complete retreat. The US is defining its international interests and ambitions in a more restricted way – but these still exist. Engagement regarding climate change will still involve the US in international cooperation (as long as Democrats influence policy). And the Chinese should not assume that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will be mirrored in Taiwan. The fate of Taiwan has a direct impact on US interests in a way that long-term involvement in Afghanistan never did. In many ways the attention of the US is shifting from the Middle East and Southwest Asia to East Asia. And conventional war is something that the US is better suited to than the asymmetrical conflicts of the past twenty years. The US still has a military budget of about $700 billion a year. The fallout from 9/11 has chastened the US and limited its ambitions. But China would be well-advised not to overestimate this. Over the fate of Taiwan, I think that the US will fight.
Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-two books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021) and Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021).