David Kilcullen, in The Weekend Australian, 11-12 September 2021
Twenty years after 9/11 the terrorism threat is larger and more widespread, the Western alliance is weaker, and the US is in sharp decline relative to its rivals. Democratic societies are less free, stunted by “safetyism”, less resilient and more divided.
The abandonment of Afghans amid the return of an unreformed triumphant Taliban just in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, underlines the failure of the global war on terror and the need for a radical rethink. This is particularly true for Australia, which faces the most threatening geopolitical environment in a century.
In one respect – and one only – the war on terror was a success: no country has suffered another attack on the scale of 9/11. But this is cold comfort against the costs of two decades of conflict. These have been enormous: researchers at Brown University calculate the financial bill at $US8 trillion ($11 trillion) for the US, not counting coalition, NATO and UN spending. The same researchers estimate up to 929,000 direct war deaths, but the true toll is far higher if we include deaths from disease, famine and social collapse in war-affected societies.
Global terrorism looms larger and threatens more countries today than in 2001. Al-Qa’ida on 9/11 had about 25,000 members, mostly in Afghanistan, Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2021 the organisation is on the point of regaining its Afghan sanctuary, has expanded into other countries and is at least double its pre-9/11 size.
More importantly, al-Qa’ida today is far from the only – let alone the most radical – transnational terrorist group. Islamic State, spawned from al-Qa’ida as a direct result of the ill-judged 2003 invasion of Iraq, still has thousands of fighters across the Middle East, 11 “provinces” and a network of almost 200,000 supporters worldwide. Regional groups such as al-Shabaab – which also emerged from an ill-judged intervention, in 2006, in Somalia – have increased in size, lethality and reach.
This suggests that, whatever tactical successes might have been achieved, the overall approach adopted after 9/11 – at least, its militarised element involving wars of occupation, counterinsurgency campaigns and counter-terrorism strikes worldwide – is worsening the problem of the Sunni transnational terrorism it was intended to address. And Sunni extremists are not the only beneficiaries.
This year Shia militants such as Lebanese Hezbollah are also stronger, better armed and much more influential than on 9/11, in part because the war on terror exacerbated longstanding sectarian rivalries within Islam.
Iraq is today effectively an Iranian protectorate, with dozens of Tehran-backed militias providing security against the remnants of Islamic State’s “caliphate” and exercising significant political control as a result. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime owes its survival to Russian and Iranian assistance, making Damascus, too, a client of Tehran.
In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthis control the country’s heartland, hold an impressive arsenal of rockets, drones and loitering munitions, and are attacking Iran’s arch rival, Saudi Arabia. Across North Africa, Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and local groups compete for recruits, while in Libya – after another ill-judged intervention, in 2011 – rival governments backed by competing coalitions vie for control as extremists prosper.
The chaos unleashed by the post-9/11 wars has weakened the Western alliance. In October 2001, for the first time, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, coming to the collective defence of the US. An enduring commitment in Afghanistan resulted, with smaller efforts in Iraq, Libya and Syria. But the invasion of Iraq, and a subsequent series of one-sided US actions, contributed to a collapse of support in many countries.
Washington’s unilateralism, disregard for allies’ interests and unwillingness to accept input on strategy or timing – while continually complaining about partners’ defence spending – alienated public opinion. Polling showed a rise in anti-Americanism across many western countries during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever the attitudes of governments.
The incompetence and incoherence on recent display in Afghanistan has now drawn rage and contempt from governments themselves, with harsh statements from leaders in London, Paris, Berlin and New Delhi. The argument, long pushed by Moscow and Beijing – that the US is both arrogant and unreliable, treating loyalty and sacrifice as a one-way street and disappearing conveniently when asked for support in return – resonates much more strongly today than on 9/11.
In geopolitical, economic and military terms, after two decades of the war on terror the US is clearly in decline relative to its competitors. Iran has gained influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen as a direct result of the post-9/11 conflicts. Russia, China and North Korea have exploited Western tunnel vision on terrorism, and the resulting lack of capacity to counter their military modernisation or push back against adventurism in places such as Crimea or the South China Sea, to develop advanced military capabilities, expand political influence and focus on economic growth rather than conflict abroad. Beijing and Moscow have also benefited directly from Western mistakes: after profiting for years from Western security efforts in Afghanistan, which allowed it to acquire large-scale mining interests there, China is now poised to become the key economic and political player across the region, linking Afghanistan with its allies in Pakistan and Iran.
Likewise, Russia exploited Western errors in Syria to restore its role in the Middle East and transform its relations with Turkey, weakening NATO in the process. Russian private military companies are active in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
North Korea, apart from a brief period in 2017-18, has benefited from being on the backburner of US policy, allowing it to build a nuclear arsenal, develop advanced missile technology, and act in an increasingly aggressive manner toward South Korea.
Aside from the external evidence of US decline, there are signs of internal weakness. The US in 2021 is a gerontocracy, with all the pathologies one might expect from an ageing regime.
America’s vigour on 9/11, on top of its game as the world’s sole superpower a decade after defeating the Soviets in the Cold War, has deteriorated into something remarkably similar to sclerotic late-Soviet politics.
A succession of aged, ineffectual, divisive leaders has failed to arrest the decline. In 2001, president George W. Bush was 55; Al Gore, his presidential rival, was 53 and Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, was 59. In 2021, President Joe Biden is 78, Donald Trump is 75 and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 81. Large segments of the US population (including many of society’s self-styled elites) have lost faith in the system, or no longer believe in the essential goodness of their own way of life.
Twenty years of inconclusive or failed wars in distant places have contributed to this loss of faith, and to a broader collapse of confidence in elites, experts and institutions of all kinds, as illustrated during the pandemic, the violent unrest and contested election of 2020.
For decades, Americans have been told by self-described experts that they have the most powerful, capable and well-equipped military the world has ever seen. It is certainly the most expensive. Yet this superb military seems unable to actually win a war: it has not done so since defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Sooner or later people, comparing the failure they see with their own eyes against the confident assurances of credentialed experts, begin to suspect that the experts might actually be idiots.
And loss of confidence in military and foreign-policy elites bleeds into other areas such as economic policy, the integrity of elections, and public health. This is particularly true in the US, but some version of it affects every country that participated in the war on terrorism: Brexit in Britain and the yellow vest protests in France are examples.
Democratic societies are less free today than on 9/11. Anti-terror legislation in many countries has chilled speech, limited freedom of assembly, association and travel, gagged media discussion of terrorism suspects, created mechanisms for secret detention without trial and compromised people’s privacy, all in the name of keeping them safe.
Domestic intelligence agencies are more intrusive, social-media and tech companies monitor conversations for extremism, surveillance cameras have proliferated and a generation has been taught to view others as potential threats. In some countries armed soldiers regularly patrol the streets of major cities. Again, this has implications far beyond counter-terrorism, as illustrated by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some observers of the pandemic complain of rampant “safetyism” by governments and members of the public, who seem willing – with controversial exceptions – to accept long-term limitations on their freedom out of all proportion to a statistically tiny risk of disease. They note our passive dependence on government to make us safe from any threat, and the statistical illiteracy of applying a safety-above-all rubric to one risk only.
But this too is a result of the war on terrorism mindset, trained into us over 20 years.
Ron Suskind’s 2006 bestseller, The One-Percent Doctrine, chronicled a decision by then vice- president Dick Cheney to treat even extremely low-probability terrorism risks as certainties in terms of the US response. “If there was even a one per cent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction,” Suskind paraphrases Cheney, “the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.”
This focus on safety at all costs, on far-reaching government action to address low-likelihood threats, and ignoring the side-effects, cost-benefit trade-offs and unintended consequences of that action might sound familiar in the midst of today’s pandemic debates. But it is not new: we learned it from the war on terrorism. Overall, it seems this mindset has made formerly free societies less resilient, more dependent and more divided since 9/11.
The past month’s Afghan betrayal underlines the failure of the war on terrorism, and brings us full circle. In 2001, after a swift and triumphant seven-week campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime, Western governments were so dismissive of Taliban leaders that we never even bothered to negotiate a peace settlement with them.
US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld dismissed out of hand Afghan leader Hamid Karzai’s suggestion of peace talks. These talks would have occurred from a position of strength with an enemy recently and comprehensively defeated in the field.
Taliban leaders such as Abdul Ghani Baradar had sued for peace, acknowledged the authority of the incoming Afghan Republic under Karzai, and sought a power-sharing deal.
Rumsfeld died at the end of June, just in time to miss the spectacle of Karzai, abandoned by the international community in a presidential palace overrun by the Taliban, negotiating an unconditional surrender with his old rival Baradar, as the enemy so contemptuously dismissed in 2001 regained full control of Afghanistan.
Since the fall of Kabul, American leaders have expressed a pathetic dependence on the goodwill of the Taliban, relying on the enemy’s good graces to evacuate their own citizens and passively hoping for an inclusive government. No power-sharing deal is on the table now, nor should we expect one. The Taliban knows what everyone else realises, even if Washington politicians seem pathologically unable to admit it: it has won the war, defeated the superpower, and can now dictate terms.
This defeat will almost certainly extend the terrorism threat by another decade. Just as Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the “caliphate” in the Grand Mosque of Mosul in July 2014 heralded a new wave of worldwide terrorism that lasted seven years, the triumph of the Taliban –— the scrappy little guerrilla group that kept the faith, never gave up and finally defeated the superpower – represents a massive morale boost for jihadists worldwide.
We have already seen increased terrorism activity, and even if the Taliban chooses to keep its promise to prevent Afghanistan becoming a base for future attacks, the global impact of failure in Afghanistan will be a renewed terrorism threat.
We must, as a matter of urgency, rethink our approach to that threat. In particular, defeat in Afghanistan offers us an opportunity to move away from a failed global war on terrorism construct, to focus on things that have actually worked – notably, Australia’s intelligence and law-enforcement collaboration with regional partners in Southeast Asia, or small-footprint special-operations deployments in support of friendly governments – and to place the risk of terrorism in a broader context.
That context, as the government noted in last year’s defence strategic update, is one of the most challenging and dangerous since the 1930s. Great-power competition among an emboldened Russia and China and a declining US will be the key factor that shapes our security environment.
The risk of Sino-American conflict, whether over Taiwan or the South China Sea, is heightened by American humiliation in Afghanistan. It poses particular risks for Australia, as our principal economic partner squares off against our major military ally.
The need for an independent, self-reliant, capable and robust defence and foreign policy – one that pursues Australia’s interests and values as a major middle power in its own right, rather than merely a minor player under the US umbrella – could not be clearer, and has been recognised by leaders across the political spectrum. This is not an anti-American statement: on the contrary, a more robust and self-reliant Australia, capable of contributing more fully on our own terms when collaboration serves our interests, would make us a much more valuable ally for Washington.
Within that context, terrorism will continue to play a role as an enduring threat. But if the past two decades teaches Western countries anything, it should be that counter-terrorism is too narrow a base on which to construct national strategy.
Twenty years after 9/11, it is finally time to retire the war on terrorism framework, treat terrorism as one among many security challenges requiring a balanced response, and focus on regaining our resilience and rebuilding the things that made our societies worth fighting for in the first place.