21: Twenty-one years after 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the attacks, is still awaiting trial. And he may still avoid it — KSM’s lawyers and prosecutors are now reportedly negotiating a plea deal that would see him and four co-defendants escape the death penalty and remain detained at Guantánamo Bay for the near future, to the dismay of victims' families.
3: The tiny Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda will vote within three years on ditching King Charles III as its head of state to become a republic. The death of Queen Elizabeth II has reignited the debate over the monarchy in several Commonwealth countries — including Australia, where current PM Anthony Albanese is a known republican.
32.83 billion: China forked out $32.83 billion in emergency loans to three cash-strapped countries — Argentina, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — since 2017, according to a new study. Most of the cash went to avoid default on money owed to Chinese banks for infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.
64: Mali's junta says it needs "compensation" in order to release 64 Ivorian soldiers detained since July despite being hired as UN peacekeepers. Bamako wants the Ivory Coast to hand over Malian opposition politicians who fled after the 2020 coup and were granted political asylum in the neighboring country.
20 years have passed since 9/11, but is the US any safer? As the Taliban regains control in Afghanistan, was the War on Terror a failure or has it kept America safe from harm? And how did US allies feel as the last American planes left Kabul? On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer speaks to two people who have had a hand in crafting global policy since the towers fell: Michael Chertoff, who served as Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under President George Bush; and Rory Stewart, who worked extensively in Afghanistan in his role as UK Secretary of State for International Development and beyond.
Do you remember where you where and what you were doing the moment you learned of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001?
I remember. As do 93% of Americans aged 30 and older. I was in New York when the planes hit the towers, in my Midtown office at the time. I was shocked. I was despondent. I was angry. The moment it became clear it wasn’t an accident was a gut punch. As I explain in my Quick Take, it was a feeling that the world had changed inextricably even if I didn’t know exactly how.
Scared of the prospect of other attacks and mad as hell at the perpetrators, in the days and weeks that followed I wanted my country to respond forcefully. Like most Americans, I was on board when President Bush promised to bring those responsible for the worst attack on our homeland since Pearl Harbor to justice. That’s why we went to war in Afghanistan, with overwhelming public support and remarkable clarity of purpose. Right? Or where we after something else?
Let’s go back and look at the original justification for the invasion.
On October 6, 2001, President Bush issued an ultimatum to the Taliban: shut down al-Qaeda’s base of operations, close their training facilities, and hand over the terrorists, or “pay a heavy price.”
Had the Taliban complied with Bush’s demand and handed over bin Laden and his associates, that would have been the end of it. No case for war, no invasion. Indeed, as Joe Biden rightly put it, the US “had no vital national interest in Afghanistan other than to prevent an attack on America’s homeland and our friends”:
Remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place? Because we were attacked by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda on September 11th, 2001, and they were based in Afghanistan […] If we had been attacked on September 11, 2001, from Yemen instead of Afghanistan, would we have ever gone to war in Afghanistan—even though the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in 2001? I believe the honest answer is “no.”
Alas, the Taliban refused, so the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the stated goal of neutralizing a clear and present danger to America and inflicting pain on those who would had been responsible for it. The war’s aims were righteous but limited: to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, decimate al-Qaeda, and punish the Taliban for harboring terrorists. This mission was immensely popular: 93 percent of Americans supported it at its height, and only one representative—Congresswoman Barbara Lee—voted against the joint resolution of Congress to authorize the war.
Members of Congress applaud President George W. Bush on Sept. 20, 2001 during joint session of Congress to address the 9/11 attacks. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
And boy, was it successful. By mid-2002, a true multilateral effort made up of a few thousand US troops supported by NATO allies and in partnership with the Northern Alliance had swiftly decimated al-Qaeda, rooted out the Taliban government, and forced bin Laden and Mullah Omar into hiding. By 2003, two-thirds of Americans judged that our response to 9/11 had made us safer against future terrorist attacks. Eight years later, in 2011, a clinically executed attack launched from Afghanistan would kill Osama at his compound in Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly, to this day the United States has not experienced another major foreign-directed terrorist attack on its soil.
In other words, the US accomplished what I—and the majority of the American people—thought we had set out to do. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were punished, incapacitated, and deterred from committing or enabling further attacks on America. But if that’s the case, why is everyone and their mother judging the war to be a catastrophic failure?
The answer is mission creep. After the initial military success, generals and successive presidents from both parties shifted the goalposts and fatally expanded the scope of the war from counterterrorism to state- and nation-building. Incapacitation, punishment and deterrence were not enough for the foreign policy establishment—Afghanistan had to be rehabilitated, too.
This is not what the American people signed up for, as evidenced by the cratering public support post-2011. (I dare you to find me one soldier who enlisted not to avenge killed Americans or defend the homeland, but to empower Afghan civil society.) Since Vietnam, it’s been clear that the United States has neither the stomach nor the power to “fix” countries in the first place.
New York Yankee fans hold up an anti-Osama bin Laden sign during a game against the Oakland Athletics on Oct. 10, 2001.(Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)
The original mission was the only winnable mission. What followed was hopeless fantasy, a lost cause. Military force can do many things, but building state capacity and enduring stability is not one of them. Remaking poor and tribal Afghanistan into a democracy at gunpoint was always doomed to fail.
As the meaning of “victory” pivoted toward the impossible, public opinion soured, and the early successes were forgotten. The Bush administration bears the greatest responsibility for turning an easy win into a sure defeat, followed by Presidents Obama and Trump—both of whom acknowledged the overreach but lacked the courage to end it. As presidents go, Biden is least to blame—after all, he ended the war and was never a fan of nation-building.
Looking ahead, my biggest worry is that the instincts, ideologies, and interests that led to this bipartisan failure are still very much alive, vying for influence over America’s foreign policy. The difference is that the 2021 America is not 2001 America. Yes, the United States remains by far the most powerful country in the world. But the country is also more divided than ever. Our greatest weakness, and the number one limit to our power, is our internal disunity.
As we come together to honor the victims of 9/11 and mourn the lives lost in response to the attacks, we must remember this above all.
25 billion: Both the public and private sectors have invested around $25 billion to reconstruct New York City's Ground Zero, including the 9/11 memorial, transforming the area into a popular tourist destination. Two remaining projects could put the bill over $30 billion.
3.1 million: It took first respondents and volunteers a collective 3.1 million hours of labor to clear 1.8 million tons of debris from Lower Manhattan after the hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers. The cleanup effort ended on May 30, 2002.
3,000: Nearly 3,000 children lost parents in the 9/11 attacks, the bulk of whom lost fathers (86 percent). While many were too young to remember their parents, here they talk about their own resilience and how they try to keep their parents' legacies alive.
1,106: The remains of 1,106 people killed on September 11, 2001 — roughly 40 percent of the Ground Zero death toll — have never been identified. For two decades, medical examiners have been performing DNA tests on 22,000 body parts recovered from the wreckage hoping for matches so that families can conduct some sort of burial for their loved ones.
Hi everybody. It's the 20th anniversary of 9/11 coming up real soon, and I thought I'd give you a few thoughts about it. I was here in New York, like so many of us, when the planes flew into the towers. It was shocking. I was in our offices in Midtown at the time. At first, of course, everyone thought it was an accident. And then suddenly it became quite apparent it was not. And it was a gut punch. It was a feeling that the world had changed inextricably even if you didn't know exactly how.
I was scared. I was angry. I certainly wanted the country to take action. And I was quite happy, as I think most Americans were, when we had a leader that promised to bring those who attacked our Homeland to justice. We also didn't know what else was out there. Were there other terrorist attacks? I mean, there were aircraft, fighter jets, American fighter jets that were sort of buzzing around New York for the next several days. And every time you heard one, you immediately sort of thought, "oh my God, was this another attack that was coming?"
And at the same time, there was a concern that the United States, whenever you have a big crisis, you focus overwhelmingly on that crisis and that means at the expense of other things. I mean, the idea of not supporting the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was almost inconceivable as an American at that point, or as any American ally around the world. And you'll remember even the Russian government, which we weren't happy with at that point, they didn't like us at that point, it was of course still Vladimir Putin, but nonetheless offered for the United States and for NATO to use bases in Central Asia, which never would've happened without Putin's approval, to facilitate logistics for the attacks in Afghanistan.
So, it did feel like the world was coming together. I mean, we, of course, all stood up and applauded as the fire trucks were coming back and we all could smell the dust in the air for months. It was even Thanksgiving. You could still smell. And you knew that there were thousands of dead bodies that were in that debris from downtown. And it was hard. It was hard to go down there. It was hard to walk past, even years after, the actual site itself. Now, we're 20 years past this and we're going to talk a lot on the day about Afghanistan and the end of the war. But I think that it is important to remember that the United States did come together after it was attacked. And the country felt like a country. It felt like it was rallying around values that mattered.
And it is so unfortunate that both the war in Afghanistan's mission became so diffuse and expanded and bad and wrongheaded. And then the war in Iraq, which was wrongheaded and misguided and actively misled from the Bush Administration leadership from day one, that so much damage was done over the course of decades, that Americans now much more fundamentally mistrust the idea of the United States providing security around the world. I mean, I think that the level of opposition for the US being involved in support for nation building internationally has decreased significantly. I think the value that Americans see in military alliances has decreased significantly. And I think that's unfortunate because those things matter. Because as deeply divided as America is right now, the values that the United States and its allies ultimately support are values that would do good for poor human beings around the world, especially compared to the alternative.
Now, the challenge is, of course, that all of those values, when they are harnessed to a military superpower with a strong military industrial complex, tend to operate through that lens. And so, as much as it is true that the United States improved the lives of a lot of young Afghan men and women and gave them opportunities over the last 20 years they wouldn't have otherwise had, it's also true, the war in Afghanistan was overwhelmingly damaging on the ground to towns and villages across that country. And the US would have been vastly better off, as would the planet, if most of the effort had not been focused on the war. Fight terrorism, fight Al Qaeda, but spend more of your money and engage more of your people and actually trying to improve the wellbeing and understand the wellbeing of the people on the ground.
And this is definitely a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, that the United States in fighting ultimately failed wars is also much less interested in other people around the planet. And that is a lesson we do not want to learn from having now ended the war in Afghanistan. I'm a supporter of having brought the war to a conclusion 20 years on, but I'm not a supporter of forgetting about the people in Afghanistan. Even once we get the remaining 100, 200 American citizens out, the hundreds of thousands of Afghans that fought with side-by-side the NATO coalition, the hundreds of thousands of Afghans that worked with the Americans and the coalition, we have a responsibility to. And also a country that we've spent that much time on the ground in and that much time both supporting and also damaging, it can't just leave you. So I do think that the lesson of 9/11 ultimately should be both resolve, but also compassion.
The United States remains today by far the most powerful country in the world. A 20 year ultimately failed war in Afghanistan does not change that. And being the most powerful country in the world also creates a sense of obligation, a sense of responsibility, a sense of stewardship. Maybe one that we weren't as aware of as we should have been before those planes attacked civilians in the United States almost 20 years ago, but one we need to do a better job of going forward.
So that's the way I think about 9/11, 20 years on. And I hope we can all take a moment of silence to reflect on that on the day. And I hope everyone's doing well. And I'll talk to you real soon.
The great Spalding Gray once wrote that he had fled his native New England for Manhattan because he wanted to live on an "island off the coast of America," where human nature was king, and everyone exuded character and had big attitude." I've now lived in New York City for 35 years, and I know what he meant. Manhattanites are Americans, without doubt, but they're suspicious of patriotic displays, and they like to keep the rest of their country at arm's length.
But 9/11 was different. All of us in the city on September 11, 2001, remember that day's clear blue sky, the time it took to understand and absorb the shock of what was happening at the World Trade Center that morning, and then the horror unfolding around us. But the response of ordinary New Yorkers was unlike anything seen in this city since the end of World War II.
Within hours of the twin towers' collapse, lower Manhattan was closed to all but first responders, city officials, and reporters. The compulsion of many New Yorkers to do something, anything, that might help someone drove thousands down the island's West Side Highway on foot to come as close to the wreckage as we were allowed, to pass bottles of water to anyone who needed one – and to cheer for the exhausted and traumatized police and firefighters passing in both directions through the barricades in cars and trucks.
New Yorkers of every description saluted, shouted their gratitude, and blew kisses to police. That's not something you see every day. That's not something you ever see. I saw it, and I won't forget it.
A few weeks later, I was in the back of a taxi heading home from a friend's place downtown, a 6.7-mile ride that covered 105 city blocks. I lost count of the American flags I saw in apartment and shop windows across our "island off the coast of America."
That surge of patriotic pride and good feeling swept the nation. In the weeks after the attacks, President George W. Bush enjoyed a 90-percent approval rating, the highest ever recorded by Gallup. Even those who would never vote for Bush supported him in that moment of trauma. It was a rare moment of American unity.
It didn't last. The War on Terror that followed continues to divide America, as we saw again last month during the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. But there was a moment after 9/11 when it felt like all Americans were living in the same country. Even us arrogant New Yorkers.
A lot has changed in 20 years. American politics, always rancorous, has grown dark and increasingly bitter.
On Saturday, as we mark the 20-year anniversary of that shocking, humbling day, we should consider this question: How would Americans respond if the nation were attacked again tomorrow? Would we, could we, unify, even for a few weeks? Or would the culture-war-driven political dysfunction that has dominated American politics in recent years divide our national response?
If so, Americans have lost much more than we realize.
The world has changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks on New York And Washington on September 11, 2001. Pop culture has evolved — significantly — as have the ways we eat, communicate, work, and get our information about the world.
Geopolitically, the past two decades have been transformative, and these developments have impacted how many observers reflect on the post-9/11 era.
Here are three examples of big geopolitical shifts over the past two decades, and how they may influence our understanding of global events today.
China got big. In 2001, China wasn't even a member of the World Trade Organization, and it was still considered a developing country that was largely closed off from the global economy. In 2001, China recorded a GDP per capita of $1,053 compared to $10,500 in 2020.
Today, China's leaders speak of "a new era" in which China will move "closer to center stage" in world affairs. President Xi Jinping now calls for a "Chinese solution" for the world's problems.
In 2001, China's geopolitical interests were not strictly defined in opposition to the US' (and vice versa). In the aftermath of 9/11, the former leader of China's Communist Party, President Jiang Zemin, expressed some sympathy with the US and supported a call for action at the United Nations Security Council. He also backed an anti-terrorism resolution calling for the ousting of the Taliban that had provided safe haven for al-Qaeda.
That spirit of cooperation is a far cry from what we've seen in recent years, when Beijing, a veto-wielding member of the UNSC, has used its power to thwart US-driven resolutions. When it comes to Afghanistan, China says it is open to recognizing the Taliban and is now working against US strategic interests in the region.
The US is no longer willing to be the world's policeman. In September 2001, the United States was at the height of its post-Cold War power. America was the unrivaled global hegemon, and despite arguments over how and whether to intervene in African conflicts and the former Yugoslavia, there was more domestic consensus across the political spectrum about how and when the US should deploy that power, particularly after the 9/11 attacks. Just one member of the US Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee, voted against the war in Afghanistan.
American politics have always been acrimonious, yet in the immediate post-9/11 era, there was more bipartisan consensus about what the US mission in Afghanistan should be — and less opposition to the idea that America had a broader "responsibility to lead" to advance American political values. That's no longer the case. As Ian Bremmer recently pointed out, if there's anything that Democrats and Republicans agree on today — and there isn't much — it's that the US should withdraw from Afghanistan. Part of the reason for that, Bremmer explains, is that lawmakers — and American voters — no longer want to be "the promoter of common values."
In October 2001, 80 percent of Americans supported a ground invasion in Afghanistan to get the bad guys who wreaked havoc on New York City. Today, by contrast, there is very little appetite to send American troops to far-flung conflict zones while Americans at home grapple with COVID recovery, crime and other domestic political priorities. The recent killing of 13 US service members amid the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to reinforce that stance. That's not to say that the US is pursuing an isolationist foreign policy — far from it. But American assumptions about the role the US should play in the world have certainly changed.
What is a war anyway? Twenty years ago, a military offensive — a boots-on-the-ground intervention — was the primary way for the US to exert maximum pressure on an adversary. But the nature of war and combat has evolved dramatically over the past two decades. State-of-the-art pilotless aircrafts and "killer drones" can be used in surveillance missions and war, and from an army's perspective, can provide a more precise and less costly alternative to traditional aerial missions. Most militaries, including NATO, are looking at how to use technology to avoid casualties without compromising the mission's objectives.
The United States has been developing its drone tech for some time, but in recent years, China too has been increasingly focused on upping its drone game: China's state-run Aviation Industry Corps has sold advanced drone tech to at least 16 countries over the past decade, and is also building a drone factory in Saudi Arabia, the first in the region.
China, for its part, has pushed back on accusations that its drone production is fueling a new arms race, but the Pentagon is certainly on edge because more countries are developing drone technologies that are being used in war-like scenarios, sometimes by bad actors. (Azerbaijan used Turkish-supplied drones against Armenia in last year's conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, while the Kremlin has agreed to send drones to Myanmar's oppressive military junta.)
And future wars are more likely to be fought mainly with cyber-weapons than with air power projected by aircraft carriers. In fact, cyberspace is an increasingly dangerous arena for conflict. That's true not only for war, but for acts of terrorism — including the next 9/11.