9/11 anniversary: We don’t need less US intervention abroad, we need better US intervention

Minimising risk to innocent people and working with host authorities should be prioritised when it comes to international intervention, writes Stephen Hoadley.

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks raises two questions. First, what we have learned? And second, where do we go from here?

In my view, we, the Western democracies, have learned to take international terrorism seriously and worked out how better to guard against it. Invading Afghanistan, assassinating Osama Bin Laden (and numerous other leaders and fighters), bombing Isis in Iraq and Syria, and detaining hundreds of suspects at Guantanamo and ‘black sites’ were extreme and controversial responses.

While they did not eliminate all terrorists, these military initiatives appear to have kept terrorist organisations on the defensive and reduced the incidence of terrorist attacks in Europe and America. Most recent attacks have been perpetrated by domestically based ‘lone wolves’ rather than by known cells of institutionalised conspirators.

Governments have imposed stringent inspections on public transport passengers that have cut airline bombings and hijackings to nearly zero. They have expanded photographic, electronic, and human surveillance policies. While hard to evaluate given official secrecy rules, authorities claim to have detected and foiled numerous terrorist plots. Statistics bear out the gradual reduction of jihadist terrorist-related fatalities in Western countries. No attack on the scale of 9/11 has recurred.

The costs have been considerable. In addition to the dollar cost to governments and corporations of ranks of new security specialists and frontline guards, the public has suffered reduction of civil liberties and privacy. Passengers and consumers have faced delays and indignities.

Nevertheless, most officials, business leaders, and publics have accepted the costs and inconvenience as a reasonable price to pay for greater security. Few are clamouring for a return to the pre-9/11 loose security precautions.

And now? Ironically the return of the Taliban, a militarised ideological movement now governing 40 million Afghans, coincides with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 which precipitated the US entry into Afghanistan. Holding the Taliban leaders to their promises of amnesty, tolerance, emigration, and above all of suppression of outside terrorist organisations, is the challenge facing Western governments. The Taliban need food, finance, expertise, and legitimacy from the West. China, Russian, and Pakistan will help, but this will not be enough. We must work with the Taliban for the welfare of the Afghan people.

Western satellite intelligence and precision drone strikes may be needed to suppress Al Qaeda and Isis-K cells gathering in remote parts of Afghanistan. Foreign forces operating in Afghan airspace will require permission from wanted terrorists who are now ministers of the new Islamic Emirate in Kabul. Western pragmatism and compromise will be necessary.

And the future? It will look like the recent past only more so. Successful counter-terrorism policies will be reiterated and refined. Terrorist attacks will occur, but only intermittently and perpetrated unpredictably by individuals, more often motivated by white supremacist arrogance than by religious extremism. Damage control and injury mitigation policies will be more effective than prevention policies. Government preparedness, and public surveillance, will intensify, but within tolerable limits set by law and economy.

Looking ahead, American President Joe Biden in his post-Afghanistan speech hinted at a reduced US commitment to world-wide ‘national building’. The United States entered periods of caution after the ‘loss’ of South Vietnam in 1975 and the failure of regime change in Somalia in 1993 (the ‘Blackhawk Down’ disaster). President Carter’s and President Clinton’s hesitancy to act abroad against atrocities allowed the Shia theocrats to seize power (and US hostages) in Iran in 1979 and the Rwanda Hutu massacre of Tutsis to run its deadly course in 1994.

What is needed is not less US intervention abroad but better intervention US abroad. Biden is well advised not to shut down overseas military commitments indiscriminately, as Trump threatened to do, but rather to focus them on achievable goals, notably counter-terrorism. Minimising risk to innocent people and working with host authorities should be prioritised.

The ‘war on terrorism’ can no more be ‘won’ than the ‘wars’ on crime, drugs, poverty, intolerance or disinformation. But it can be conducted with discrimination and skill to minimise their dire effects. In this endeavour the US can still play a leading role. This is what we have learned from 9/11 and what should guide our policies in the next 20 years.

Stephen Hoadley is an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.

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