On the 11th of September, 2001, members of terror group Al Qaeda hijacked two US passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre in New York City. 2,997 people died and US foreign policy changed irrevocably. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Twenty years and two wars later, the USA enters the twilight of its superpower years.
The Second War World War ended dreams of German world domination, but it also helped end the British Empire. After fighting two world wars on their soil, the old empires of Europe were exhausted. In the following decades, their colonies in Africa and Asia gained their independence. Britain, who had ruled a quarter of the world’s people, resigned from its place as a global superpower and its two wartime allies – the United States and the Soviet Union, took its place.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the USA became the world’s undisputed superpower. The nations of Eastern Europe, now free from the shackles of Soviet-enforced communism, embraced American-style liberal democracy, and it seemed for a time the rest of the world would follow suit. Capitalism, democracy and mass media would unite the world and there would be no need for wars. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called it ‘The End of History.’
But it wasn’t. Wars continued, most notably in former Yugoslavia and Kuwait. In Afghanistan, the rebel factions who had defeated the Soviets with American support turned on each other. In 1996, the Taliban seized the country.
Al Qaeda began as an Arab volunteer force that fought the Russians in Afghanistan. They saw themselves as Jihadis, protecting the Muslim world against aggressors like the Soviet Union. In the 90s, now based out of Afghanistan, they turned against the other remaining superpower.
Al Qaeda saw the encroachment of the USA’s political and cultural influence across the Muslim world, particularly after the fall of the USSR, as a threat to Islamic civilization. They deplored American support for dictators, its pursuit of Middle Eastern oil and, in particular, its support for Israel, a Jewish state on Arab land. As Al Qaeda could not match the military might of the USA and its allies, they turned to terrorism.
Their attack on the World Trade Centre shattered hopes of world peace and the security of the United States. The Bush Administration demanded the Taliban government hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. They refused, and the United States invaded.
The Bush Administration also used the post 9/11 climate of fear and nationalism to invade Iraq in 2003 – a country with no link to Al Qaeda – on the false pretence of its leaders harbouring ‘weapons of mass destruction.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq fell quickly, but the US military found themselves bogged down supporting flimsy new governments and fighting vicious insurgencies. The Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies fought a practically invisible enemy for over twenty years.
If anything, the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ justified Al Qaeda’s worldview. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq birthed a climate of war and instability, giving rise to the Islamic State – a militant group who committed genocide from 2014 – 2016, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban rose once more. US special forces killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
At home, a recession hit in 2008, from 2016 the political divide reached its widest since the Civil War and, in 2020, a global pandemic hit that exacerbated all its problems.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020 was overdue, but it was also clumsy and rushed. In a matter of months, the USA pulled out its military, and the Taliban took back control, this time with the millions of dollars worth of tanks and guns the US left behind. For the second time, the US has lost a war to an underequipped and canny opponent in a decades long insurgency.
Empires do not last forever, nor do superpowers. While the US has wasted its resources and reputation fighting the War on Terror, rival China has built its strength and bided its time.
The USA spent over 780 billion dollars on the War on Afghanistan. When they invaded in 2001, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country – they now control 100.