When attacks by the Islamist network Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people, the United States, and the world with it, plunged into a “war on terror” that will dominate international relations for two decades, lastingly upsetting the balance in the world. Middle East and masking the resurgence of Russia as a strategic rival and the emergence of China as the new number one adversary.
“Today we reached the end of a strategic cycle and closed a parenthesis where international jihadism was the only identified enemy,” Elie Tenenbaum, co-author of the book “The Twenty-Year War,” told AFP.
According to this researcher from the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), “the strategic competition between great powers is once again the international paradigm”, with “the emergence of other issues that relativize the terrorist threat”, beginning with a confrontation with a new air cold war between Washington and Beijing.
And to show that the circle was finally closed, Joe Biden wanted this twentieth anniversary to coincide with the total withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, invaded after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon to hunt down Al Qaida, which had perpetrated, and expelled, the Taliban, who had offered a sanctuary to the jihadist network.
But the symbol turned against the president of the United States: on the eve of September 11, 2021, the Taliban control Kabul, thanks to a meteoric victory over the Afghan army that Washington boasted of having formed, financed and equipped.
If “the circle seems to be well and truly closed” it is, unfortunately, because this part of the world runs the risk of once again welcoming “very violent extremists”, deplored Mark Green, Republican legislator at the time of the attacks and today president from the Wilson Center Research Institute.
This former head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is among those who think that it would have been reasonable to leave the 2,500 American soldiers who were still there at the beginning of the year in Afghanistan, to preserve both the profits and the rights of women, once brutally punished by the Taliban.
For other reasons, strictly linked to the fight against terrorism, John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, is angry with the successive presidents of his country.
Democrats Biden and Barack Obama, but also Republican Donald Trump, to whom he was a short-lived national security adviser, have been too eager, according to him, to please a public opinion tired of America’s “endless wars.”
“Twenty years is a drop in the bucket!”, Said, with the provocative style that characterizes him, this sovereignist who has been defending US interventionism for years.
“They did not explain why it is better to defend oneself against the risk of terrorism in Afghanistan than in the streets and the American sky,” he told AFP. For Bolton, the presence in Afghanistan was “an insurance policy against a new 9/11, and it worked.”
Now, the return of the Taliban threatens to offer new sanctuaries to jihadism, he warned.
On the contrary, Trump, who was the first to speak of withdrawal, and later Biden, but also much of the American political leadership, bet that the rebirth of an Islamist regime in Kabul is not a vital threat to the United States, and that staying had a higher political cost than leaving.
The abrupt departure from Afghanistan in any case rekindles the debate on the controversial legacy of these conflicts launched by the Americans thousands of miles from home in the name of sacrosanct “national security.”
“War on terrorism” was the expression coined by then-President George W. Bush since the night of September 11, 2001.
That year 2001 tipped the world into the new millennium. All the more abruptly as a decade also ended, that of 1990, during which the United States acquired the somewhat deceptive status of superpower.
For Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that advocates for restraint in foreign policy, this “ideological arrogance” and this “belief that American forces were invincible” had consequences.
They led Bush and those around him “to see 9/11 not only as an unforgivable slap, but also as an opportunity to demonstrate, without a shadow of a doubt,” the alleged American superpower, he said.
Surrounded by interventionist neo-conservatives determined to promote the democratic model throughout the planet, the Republican president offered a very broad definition of his “war on terrorism.”
In January 2002, when the Taliban had been overthrown and Al Qaida had already suffered considerably, Bush designated an “axis of evil” far removed from the original target, consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Believing that he still enjoyed the capital of global sympathy that had manifested itself in the 9/11 attacks, his government embarked on a dangerous march toward war in Iraq, blaming Saddam Hussein for hiding weapons of mass destruction.
But he was wrong: “Unanimity is eroding very quickly” and “the image of the United States does not stop falling,” stressed Tenenbaum.
Ten years later, the departure of the Americans left a vacuum that favored the emergence of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) and its “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria. And the United States was forced to return, in 2014, leading an international military coalition.
The balance of the war on terror is therefore mixed, to say the least.
More than 800,000 people have died, with a heavy price paid by Iraqi and Afghan civilians, at a cost of more than $ 6.4 trillion to the United States, according to a study published in late 2019 by Brown University.
There was no new 9/11, but the spectacular IS attacks have left Europe in mourning and the terrorist threat persists, although more diffuse and decentralized: today there are two or three times more jihadists around the world than in 2001, according to one estimate cited by Tenenbaum.
As for the image of the United States, it is tarnished. The use of torture, the opening of the Guantánamo prison, in Cuba, to deprive the accused of US constitutional protections, or even the trivialization of “selective eliminations” by drones in foreign territory, have put the main power world outside the rule of law.
A certain consensus is emerging today: the war against terrorism has deviated from its initial objective.
Although at the beginning it allowed to reduce the threat, the West failed “to manage the stabilization phase of the countries, causing political fatigue in the face of these wars,” Tenenbaum said.
Even Bolton, who does not share the plan to export democracy by force, deplored this desire to “build nations” at all costs rather than stick to simple counter-terrorism goals.