Each year, the anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, represents an important day in which the American people unite in remembering and grieving the loss of 3,000 of our fellow Americans who were senselessly murdered that day by radical Islamic terrorists. The 9-11 victims and their families are in our hearts and prayers each and every day of the year, but especially so on this twentieth anniversary of the attacks, where now an entire generation has grown up since their loved ones were taken from them on that bright early September day.
While this annual remembrance remains forever focused on the victims and their families, this particular two-decade milestone also provides an opportunity to reflect on how our country has responded in terms of national security, and whether, in the end, we are safer today as a result of the actions we have taken over the last twenty years. The short answer is arguably no – while we are much safer in terms of aviation security and disrupting potential terrorist attacks, our focus on nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq for much of that time distracted us until recently from addressing even greater threats such as the emergence of China as a global power with bellicose ambitions.
Immediately following the attacks twenty years ago, Americans witnessed a rarely seen outpouring of support and grief from almost every corner of the globe. Flowers adorned the gates of American embassies abroad, heartfelt expressions of sympathy emerged from just about every quarter, even in countries not ordinarily friendly toward American interests. One top French newspaper generally opposed to the U.S. famously editorialized at the time, “We are all Americans.”
Americans of all political leanings rallied around our leadership following the attacks. President George W. Bush spoke for the nation on the rubble of the towers in New York in his “bullhorn moment,” pledging a forceful response to the terrorists responsible. This continued for the next several months, when a relatively small footprint of U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan quickly toppled the Taliban leaders of that country who had allowed Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to plan and finance the attacks. Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, but a number of his leadership were captured relatively quickly and brought to Guantanamo and other U.S. sites. Bin Laden himself was killed close to a decade later by U.S. forces, and similar robust counter-terrorist actions continue to this day, whether in drone strikes, or in direct action to eliminate terrorists such Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed in a raid in October 2019 under President Trump.
The U.S. government’s counter-terrorism efforts in response to 9-11 were coupled with strong actions on the security front, particularly in the areas of aviation and travel. Once outsourced, non-standardized screening in airports was quickly replaced with strong physical security measures that effectively addressed gaps exploited by the 9-11 hijackers with box-cutters and other weapons, and explosives security was greatly improved after a handful of attempted actions by shoe- and underwear-bombers on U.S. commercial aircraft. Most notably, a year after 9-11, both parties in Congress came together to consolidate and expand disparate federal security agencies into a new, single agency known as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS in turn vastly improved screening of potential travelers for terrorist and criminal affiliations.
These strong actions in counter-terrorism and homeland security reorganization by themselves have to this day made our country much safer than it was twenty years ago. Unfortunately, the big picture is not as bright. Specifically, the decision to engage in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in 2003 that evolved quickly into a costly exercise in nation-building in both countries for over a decade left us less safe on balance. All told, both wars took the lives of close to 7,000 of our brave servicemen and women and cost taxpayers over $6 trillion.
Even the principal architects of that nation-building effort in both countries are now admitting it was a strategic blunder. Bush’s deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz said this week on Afghanistan, “I think we overreached at some point. I can’t say exactly when. I would say around 10 years ago. We became overambitious in military terms.” On Iraq, he noted, “I think we did sort of creep into nation-building as somehow part of our mission, with a certain logic I admit I probably was guilty of espousing as well.”
To his great credit, President Trump recognized the flaws in this strategy, and pledged to end our nation-building in both countries. In his 2019 State of the Union address, he famously noted, “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years…Great nations do not fight endless wars.” He proceeded later that month to negotiate a conditions-based exit from Afghanistan that President Biden bungled badly on his watch two-and-a-half years later, leaving radical Islamist Taliban leaders back in charge of the country, this time armed with some $80 billion in top-shelf U.S. military equipment.
Biden’s incompetence in ending our presence in Afghanistan in the way that he did has clearly left us much more vulnerable to terrorist attacks going forward. Unfortunately, the real national security cost of our two decades of trying to reshape that country and Iraq is far higher, because it distracted us from addressing the bigger threat of a rising China that is committed to surpassing the U.S. as a global military power, with bellicose ambitions both in the region and elsewhere. Had we not spent two decades and close to seven trillion dollars on our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would have been able to counter China’s rise far more robustly, particularly in the critical area of shipbuilding, where over the same period it has quietly become the largest navy in the world in overall ship numbers.
Over the last twenty years, our response to 9-11 has improved our national security in important ways, including in homeland security reorganization and counter-terrorism efforts, particularly in our willingness to strike bad actors around the world who are planning attacks on our country. That said, our costly nation-building actions over the same period have clearly done the opposite, by diverting our attention from greater threats including most notably China, and particularly in the disastrous way in which President Biden chose to remove our forces from Afghanistan in the last month. These have left us far less safe overall, and will require extra vigilance and leadership to address in the years to come.
John Ullyot was Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and NSC Spokesman from 2019-2021.