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Maxwell Professor Reflects on U.S. Policy in Middle East Post-9/11
Less than one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom, the American-led international effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Within two months, U.S. forces had effectively removed the Taliban from operational power, but the war continued for another 20 years. Bin Laden was eventually located and killed by U.S. forces in neighboring Pakistan in May 2011.
Although President Barack Obama announced the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in December 2014, a contingent of U.S. forces and American military contractors remained in the country. Following a peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States by President Donald Trump, America’s longest war was finally concluded this past summer by President Biden.
As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we reached out to professor and Middle East expert Osamah Khalil to answer this fundamental question: How effective was America’s post-9/11 strategy in the Middle East?
Khalil is an associate professor of history in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and chair of Maxwell’s international relations undergraduate program. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, the modern Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Khalil is also the author of “America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State,” a history of Middle East studies in the United States that was named by Foreign Affairs as a Best Book of 2017.
Here’s what Khalil wrote in response to our question:
“Politically it was going to be very difficult for the George W. Bush administration not to respond militarily to the Sept. 11 attacks. But there were a number of mistakes made, including the decision to launch a ‘Global War on Terror.’
“Al-Qaida was very small, with roughly 3,000 members who were largely concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because advanced warning of the attacks was missed or ignored, the Bush administration sought a very aggressive public response abroad and domestically. The Bush administration conflated a broad range of groups—including some that were hostile toward al-Qaida and bin Laden–under the umbrella of terror organizations with global reach. It also insisted that terrorism was an ideology and not a strategy, which ensured a lengthy conflict against many groups with no clear end. In addition, the adoption of torture, extrajudicial assassinations and indefinite detention of suspects–most revealed to have no connection to any terrorist organizations–generated even greater hostility and undermined America’s image abroad.
“The Bush administration also abandoned negotiations with the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden. These negotiations predated 9/11. Even after the Taliban was overthrown, Washington ignored reconciliation attempts. The Bush administration rejected attempts to include Taliban members in coalition governments or negotiate power-sharing agreements.
“This was compounded by the lack of an invasion and occupation strategy for Afghanistan. The Bush administration rejected “nation-building” and did not attempt to build a viable Afghan National Army. Instead, Washington’s focus changed toward Iraq even though bin Laden and key members of the Taliban leadership escaped the initial U.S. invasion. By the time the Taliban reemerged and launched a sustained insurgency in 2005, the United States was already bogged down in Iraq. Afghanistan received less attention and resources over the next six years.
“Even after Barack Obama was elected, Afghanistan was deemed less important than Iraq. Although more resources were devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan than in previous years, and bin Laden was ultimately killed, the Taliban had established a shadow government in large parts of Afghanistan. It was seen as less corrupt and more effective than the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. This persisted and expanded even after the U.S. launched a military and civilian ‘surge’ that led to a greater number of casualties and massive expenditures on ill-conceived infrastructure projects as well as attempts to develop Afghan security forces. The rapid collapse of the Afghan army over the past months is the most prominent example of two decades of flawed and failed policies.
“At home, the War on Terror relied on fear and suspicion. This was deployed against Arab- and Muslim-American communities but was not limited to them. Instead, the rationale of disrupting future attacks was used to justify invasive and pervasive surveillance. This was compounded by law enforcement tactics in which immigrant communities were intimidated to recruit informants and terror plots were manufactured.
“After two decades, it is time for the United States to revisit the detrimental policies that were implemented in response to Sept. 11. In place of costly wars abroad and security theater at home, the Biden administration should refocus and reform law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts and funding. This includes strengthening America’s infrastructure and developing more robust emergency response capabilities to manage and prevent a range of catastrophic events, including pandemics, natural disasters, gun violence and terrorism.”