Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ten Years After 9/11, Sadness, Triumphs, And A War Without End

People gather in New York's Times Square as news of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan is announced on May 2.
U.S. forces have killed Osama bin Laden. Saddam Hussein and his regime are history. The Arab Spring has delivered an eloquent rejection of the forces of jihadist violence. The appeal of holy war against the West has faded.

And yet, a full decade after the fateful day of September 11, 2001, all-out victory in the so-called "war on terror" remains as elusive as ever. The United States and its allies have scored some important wins. But the chain of events set in train that fateful day has yet to find a satisfying end.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban movement, stripped of power by a combined U.S.-Afghan onslaught in November 2001, is once again resurgent. The government of President Hamid Karzai, installed with U.S. help in early 2002, is pursuing power-sharing talks with Mullah Mohammad Omar's guerillas.

In Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein from power, the civil war that threatened to tear the country apart has ebbed. But stable government and security for all of the country's citizens remain distant goals.

And in the United States itself, a sense of relief that the country has lived through 10 years without another mass-casualty terrorist attack mingles with chagrin about the costs -- economic, political, and individual -- of a global war against a shadowy enemy.

Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and one of America's leading foreign-policy thinkers, says that one of the most serious consequences of the 9/11 attacks was that they diverted the attention of U.S. leaders from urgent domestic priorities.

The United States has devoted enormous resources to national security.
The United States could have responded to the attacks in ways that would have allowed it to devote its resources to reforming health care and education, modernizing infrastructure, and otherwise preparing itself to respond to the rise of global economic competition.

"One of the major challenges is the deficits that the federal government is running, and they have been aggravated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for which the country has not paid," Mandelbaum says. "We have borrowed to finance these wars, and this is really the first time in American history that the country has not raised taxes in order to pay for wars, and that is extremely unfortunate."

National Security Takes Center Stage

Some experts contend that the years since 9/11 have seen a net decline in U.S. global influence and prestige. Others point out that the United States still boasts the world's largest national economy -- even after the financial crisis of 2008. Its military superiority remains unchallenged.

The latter is certainly no surprise, considering the massive expansion of the national-security apparatus since 2001. By one estimate, the U.S. government has spent some $7 trillion on national defense, homeland security, and the intelligence services over the past decade. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the office of the Director of National Intelligence in the years immediately following 9/11 represented the largest reorganization of the federal bureaucracy since World War II.

Today the United States accounts for roughly 46 percent of the entire world's military expenditures. The intelligence budget alone has doubled over the past 10 years. According to an estimate by "The Washington Post," 854,000 Americans now hold top-secret security clearances.

The understandable obsession with preventing another attack led the administration of President George W. Bush to take a series of draconian measures, including "enhanced interrogations" of detained prisoners -- tactics described by some as torture -- and programs for the domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Security Vs Civil Liberties

Debate continues about the efficacy of those responses. Their defenders -- like former Justice Department official John Yoo, author of a 2002 memo authorizing harsh interrogation -- argue that they played a crucial role in warding off further attacks.

A noncompliant detainee is escorted by guards inside the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
"Civil liberties would have certainly suffered far worse had Al-Qaeda succeeded in landing a second blow on 9/11," Yoo wrote in a recent editorial in "The Wall Street Journal." "Instead, the Bush administration successfully handed off a secure homeland to his successor."

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, disagrees. He argues that many Bush-era laws in the "war on terror" upended basic principles of the rule of law, both domestic and international. But Supreme Court decisions, revelations in the press, and pushback by the electorate all contributed to the reform or abolition of many of the legal actions undertaken during the Bush era.

"I think what we've learned is that in fact the law proved more resilient than the Bush administration thought it would be," Cole says. "They were forced to retreat -- and did in fact retreat -- on all of those initiatives."

Ironically, Cole says, it is precisely because the Bush administration gave the green light to previously outlawed forms of interrogation that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the confessed planner of the 9/11 attacks, still has not been brought to trial. According to media reports, his CIA interrogators subjected Mohammed to water boarding -- meaning that, according to the principles of the U.S. justice system, judges are likely to disallow any evidence obtained from him.

"Once you use any coercive tactic in obtaining information from an individual -- and it doesn't even have to rise to the level of torture, any use of coercion -- any statement that is obtained thereafter is tainted by that tactic and cannot, under the U.S. rules that govern criminal trials, cannot be used in any way in a criminal trial," Cole explains.

Some Change Under Obama

The administration of President Barack Obama has rejected the expansive reading of executive power propounded by his predecessor and has discontinued some Bush-era practices. He has stopped the policy of "extraordinary rendition," in which U.S. detainees were transferred to the custody of countries with records of torture, and has closed the overseas "black sites" where prisoners were interrogated out of public view.

Yet Obama has signally failed in his bid to close the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (though he has prevented any additional prisoners from being sent there). Democrats and Republicans united in their opposition to proposals that some of the detainees -- including Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- be brought to the United States for trial.

While some activities were discontinued under the Obama administration, drone strikes have increased.
Meanwhile, Obama has actually intensified the use of covert counterterrorism operations by the CIA and the Pentagon's elite counterterror units. He has stepped up the CIA's campaign to strike jihadist targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan with remote-controlled drones.

Critics say that the use of drones has killed terrorist operatives at the cost of destabilizing Pakistan, exacerbating anti-American public opinion, and empowering Islamic extremists. More than 33,000 Pakistanis have died in the war on terror in the country since 9/11, according to local officials.

No one has reliable numbers for civilian casualties from the wars in other theaters of America's post-9/11 military campaigns in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. But they certainly number in the many tens of thousands. These deaths -- as well as the revelations of mistreatment of prisoners in U.S. custody in the notorious Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib -- have contributed to anti-American sentiment around the world.

A War Without End?

Many Americans, fatigued by a decade of grim headlines, have since tuned out coverage of events in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the growing apathy has not stanched the casualties. More than 6,000 members of the U.S. military have died in the two wars, while some 43,000 others have suffered often incapacitating wounds.

But no one can say when the fighting will end -- particularly in Afghanistan, where the United States is still in the process of handing over responsibility for the country's security to the increasingly beleaguered Karzai government.

Meanwhile, say analysts, Al-Qaeda -- or what's left of it -- is already relocating to new havens in Yemen or Somalia.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ten Years Later, New Life At Ground Zero

So has it all been worth it? We are probably still too close to events to know for sure. Some analysts argue that the United States has not served its own interests by devoting such a large share of resources to the pursuit of Al-Qaeda. Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins says that the rise of China and other Asian economies over the past decade poses far greater challenges to the United States' place in the world than anything happening in the Middle East.

"After September 11 we devoted ourselves to chasing the losers from globalization when the real challenge internationally in the future will come from the winners," Mandelbaum says. "The Middle East is important for a variety of reasons but not because it's a center of economic growth and potential military power. That, however, is true of East Asia."

A lot has happened over the past 10 years. But the story of the post-9/11 era is still far from over.