Analysis

How the U.S. Got 9/11 Wrong

The lone superpower inadvertently taught the rest of the world how to fight it—and win.

U.S. Army 3rd Division Bradley fighting vehicles take up their position.
U.S. Army 3rd Division Bradley fighting vehicles take up a position along a road inside the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq on March 19, 2003, ahead of the invasion of Iraq. Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was considered virtually unchallengeable. Not only was it the lone superpower left on the world stage after the Soviet Union’s collapse a decade before, the United States had become, if anything, even more dominant relative to the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia had shrunk to an economy smaller than Portugal’s. Europe was inwardly focused and squabbling over monetary union. Japan’s once-surging economy had flatlined. And China was still just a rising tiger. Even the Roman Empire at its height did not measure up to the economic, military, and technological dominance over the world then possessed by United States, wrote Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. In a famous 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy had argued the United States was in decline, but as the new century got underway, he changed his mind: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.” 

Despite the terrible trauma of what happened later that morning—the worst-ever attack on U.S. soil—Washington’s response over the next two months only reaffirmed U.S. dominance. After the Taliban refused to surrender the culprit behind 9/11, al Qaeda, the United States attacked Afghanistan—but in a new way that utterly baffled the militants. Armed with GPS navigators and laser-targeting equipment with which to “paint” Taliban troops on the ground, a handful of CIA officers and special operations forces guided in powerful smart bombs that decimated the Taliban. Survivors scurried into the mountains. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his terrorists ran with them, escaping to their mountain redoubt at Tora Bora. With the noose closing, it seemed to some U.S. officials that the nascent “war on terror” was almost won. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, later told me in an interview—and recorded in his 2005 book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda—bin Laden was overheard on the radio asking his followers for forgiveness. Berntsen swiftly sent a message back to Washington asking for more troops, saying, “Let’s kill this baby in the crib.” In just a matter of months, “we could have had the entire al Qaeda command structure,” Berntsen said. 

That’s when things began to go terribly wrong for Washington. 

As dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was considered virtually unchallengeable. Not only was it the lone superpower left on the world stage after the Soviet Union’s collapse a decade before, the United States had become, if anything, even more dominant relative to the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia had shrunk to an economy smaller than Portugal’s. Europe was inwardly focused and squabbling over monetary union. Japan’s once-surging economy had flatlined. And China was still just a rising tiger. Even the Roman Empire at its height did not measure up to the economic, military, and technological dominance over the world then possessed by United States, wrote Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. In a famous 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy had argued the United States was in decline, but as the new century got underway, he changed his mind: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.” 

Despite the terrible trauma of what happened later that morning—the worst-ever attack on U.S. soil—Washington’s response over the next two months only reaffirmed U.S. dominance. After the Taliban refused to surrender the culprit behind 9/11, al Qaeda, the United States attacked Afghanistan—but in a new way that utterly baffled the militants. Armed with GPS navigators and laser-targeting equipment with which to paint Taliban troops on the ground, a handful of CIA officers and special operations forces guided in powerful smart bombs that decimated the Taliban. Survivors scurried into the mountains. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his terrorists ran with them, escaping to their mountain redoubt at Tora Bora. With the noose closing, it seemed to some U.S. officials that the nascent “war on terror” was almost won. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, later told me in an interview—and recorded in his 2005 book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda—bin Laden was overheard on the radio asking his followers for forgiveness. Berntsen swiftly sent a message back to Washington asking for more troops, saying, “Let’s kill this baby in the crib.” In just a matter of months, “we could have had the entire al Qaeda command structure,” Berntsen said. 

That’s when things began to go terribly wrong for Washington. 

Hiding in the mountains, bin Laden reportedly asked his militants to pray—and for him, at least, a kind of miracle occurred. Distracted by their plans to invade Iraq and determined to keep a “small footprint” in Afghanistan, the White House and U.S. Defense Department refused to rush in troops to encircle the trapped al Qaeda terrorists, in what Afghanistan expert Peter Bergen later wrote was “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” Bin Laden fled to Pakistan, disappearing for almost 10 years. Then came U.S. President George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraqi diversion, which left Afghanistan wide open to a Taliban resurgence. The Iraq occupation, with U.S. troops now exposed on the ground, also proved to be a tutorial for jihadists in a new kind of asymmetric warfare against the overextended superpower, waged by smaller, stealthier militant groups using novel weapons like improvised explosive devices that revealed the United States’ worst vulnerabilities. Many of these tactics then spread from Iraq back to Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Taliban renewed themselves in the vacuum left by the otherwise-occupied Americans, deploying these asymmetric guerrilla methods toward a long-term strategic goal of outlasting Washington. 

“Every jihadist group on the planet is massively energized that this little group, the Taliban, outlasted the infidel United States,” said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

Finally, on Aug. 31, the resurrected Taliban chased the United States out of the country altogether. The militants’ stunning 10-day takeover left Washington humiliated and, as U.S. President Joe Biden declared in a speech that day, resigned to “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” That new approach now encompasses the entire Middle East: In late July, Biden also announced the U.S. military would downshift to a training role in Iraq by the end of the year, apparently preparatory to leaving. 

As a result, no one is celebrating the 20th anniversary of 9/11 more than Islamist militants around the world. Four U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Biden—were unable to defeat the Taliban, a force said to be just 75,000 people strong. Tired of the conflict, the last three U.S. presidents have been dead set on a policy of retreat from Central Asia and the Middle East. This had been al Qaeda’s main goal all along, beginning with bin Laden, who said he sought to expel the “crusaders” from the region. The Islamist celebration will go well beyond the rifles fired in the air by the Taliban on Aug. 31. 

“Every jihadist group on the planet is massively energized that this little group, the Taliban, outlasted the infidel United States,” said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.


Biden and his team haven’t really addressed this grim new psychological reality. And Biden’s credibility worldwide has plainly taken a serious hit, though he seems in denial about it. Doubling down again and again that he was right to leave as he did, the president has even portrayed his two-week airlift of some 120,000 people out of Afghanistan as a kind of victory rather than the pell-mell retreat it was. “No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history,” Biden boasted in his Aug. 31 speech. He added that it’s time for the United States to move onto new challenges: “We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation.”
True enough. But the ultimate irony may be that whatever Biden’s desire is to move on, the United States is now actually closer to being back to square one: facing a jihadi-riddled Afghanistan and an emboldened Taliban running the country, just as prevailed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The biggest difference: The United States is no longer the awe-inspiring superpower it once was. And others, not just jihadis, will seek to take advantage of that—in particular, China and Russia.
“The impact of this on our reputation and ability to corral allies for future causes is just huge,” said Kilcullen, author of a 2020 book called The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, a profound examination of the United States’ loss of relative power in recent decades. “For the foreseeable future, anytime the Americans say to someone, ‘Do what we want, or we’ll target you with our military,’ the response will be: ‘Which military? You mean the one you just lost the war with the Taliban with?’”

Biden and the U.S. national security apparatus can claim some major victories over the last 20 years. Bin Laden was ultimately killed by a U.S. operation, as was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the original leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the U.S. homeland has suffered no attack from overseas since 9/11. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, decimated by U.S. strikes on their leadership, are shells of their former selves—for the moment. Nor is the United States, which remains the dominant military and economic power in the world, about to withdraw troops from key forward bases such as those in Germany, Japan, and South Korea (as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). Many diplomats and security experts say Biden, by rejecting the idea that the United States can occupy and transform foreign lands, is right to declare a major strategic shift away from the overuse of military power.

“Part of what we got wrong was thinking we could do too much with our hard power,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador with extensive experience in Afghanistan. “There’s a certain place for using hard power against specific hard targets who are carrying out terrorist activities. That can be valuable. What happened is we tried to use that hard power too broadly, thinking it could help us transform entire nations, and in the process, we made serious mistakes that actually created more new terrorists.” 

Indeed, foreign-policy experts say perhaps the only good thing to come out of the last 20 years is Washington learned valuable new lessons about the perils of military overextension, lessons that recall a previous U.S. humiliation: Vietnam. The common thread that ties together Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that nationalist insurgencies—whether the Viet Cong, the Taliban, or Iraqi jihadists—will typically be able to outlast the patience of even the most powerful foreign occupier. Former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh said, “You will kill 10 of us, and we will kill one of you, and in the end, it is you who will be exhausted.” The Taliban liked to say, “You have the watches, but we have the time.” The message was the same, and the lesson—that the United States should not “go in search of monsters to destroy,” in former U.S. President John Quincy Adams’s words—is one that two very different presidents, Trump and Biden, have now impressed on the American people. If the lesson stays learned, it may prevent the kind of overconfidence that led to the Iraq invasion and Afghanistan’s failed counterinsurgency policy, which U.S. officials hyped for years as far more successful than it was.

It is a lesson all great powers have had to learn going back to the Roman Empire, which had its own problems overcoming unwieldy local insurgencies, said Edward J. Watts, a historian at the University of California, San Diego. “If you’re going to go in, you have to be committed to being there for a really long time or even indefinitely. That’s the lesson the U.S. didn’t learn in Vietnam and in Afghanistan.”

Yet the United States must now reckon with the consequences. Bin Laden and his small band of acolytes have succeeded well beyond the terrorist leader’s lifetime in his aim to fight well above al Qaeda’s weight class—to exhaust the Americans as the mujahideen once did to the Soviets. In one of the papers found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound after he was killed, he wrote his ultimate goal was to “destroy the myth of American invincibility.” 

In that, he was brilliantly successful, mainly thanks to his enemy’s hubris.

The ultimate irony, perhaps, was that George W. Bush and his hawkish lieutenants, principally then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, were determined to demonstrate U.S. invincibility after 9/11. No single reason has ever been given for the Iraq invasion, but it was clear that for the Bush team, simply taking out the Taliban wasn’t enough. Based on many accounts published since then, the administration wanted to send the world a message that U.S. power was terrifying in its own right. Then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the dictator served as a handy poster villain for George W. Bush’s new strategy: delivering “preemptive” strikes against alleged terrorist-harboring states. 

“The ease with which they got rid of the Taliban added to their sense that our technological advantage was so huge that we could take out governments without destroying states,” said Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

In the next two decades, the Americans would be yanked down from their smart-bomb empyrean and forced to slug it out on the ground with all the new jihadist enemies they had spawned—at a tremendous cost to life, limb, treasure, and U.S. patience. 

Swelled with confidence—some would say arrogance—the Bush administration trumped up a flimsy (and ultimately false) case that Saddam was linked to al Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Then, against the advice of most of his allies and in defiance of world opinion, George W. Bush invaded. The effect was the opposite of what he intended. 

“The most important error was invading Iraq,” Kilcullen said in an interview. “You can really date the decline of American military dominance to that. That is the master error that drives the rest.” 

The result was that the Bush administration left Afghanistan vulnerable to the gradually resurgent Taliban and, by invading Iraq and becoming an occupying power in the heart of the Arab world, opened a Pandora’s box of fresh Islamist terror directed at Washington. The U.S. occupation of Iraq—and the often brutal way the Americans conducted it, with mass arrests and beatings of often innocent Iraqis who ended up at Abu Ghraib prison or Camp Bucca—engendered a new Islamist threat led by Zarqawi. As a 2015 Brookings Institution report on Camp Bucca put it: If detainees “weren’t jihadists when they arrived, many of them were by the time they left.” That Islamist movement, in turn, spread to Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa and later morphed into the Islamic State led by Baghdadi. Born in the Iraq occupation, the Islamic State then metastasized back into Afghanistan, Syria, and other places, taking on new forms and employing new, smarter tactics.

Thus, the opening salvo of the invasion of Iraq—the notorious “shock and awe” campaign—actually “marked the peak of the [U.S.] high-tech, intelligence-led, precision-strike model of battlefield dominance,” Kilcullen wrote. “That way of war, which the United States had pioneered in 1991 [the opening of the “smart bomb” era in the first Gulf War] and which everyone else, allies and enemies, had been forced to reckon with ever since, began to decline from this point on.” 

Instead, in the next two decades, the Americans would be yanked down from their smart-bomb empyrean and forced to slug it out on the ground with all the new jihadist enemies they had spawned—at a tremendous cost to life, limb, treasure, and U.S. patience. 


Meanwhile, those enemies adapted. Jihadists merged into the landscape and communities they operated in so it became more difficult to separate them from the general population, and after years of near-death experiences from drone and airstrikes, they “became tougher, smarter, stealthier, and much more lethal over time,” Kilcullen wrote. The jihadists even developed technology of their own, such as tele-operated weapons and tactics like the use of small autonomous cells that fight in dispersed battle swarms, which Kilcullen said the West itself could learn from.

As a result of U.S. overreach, “the damage done by al Qaeda pales compared to the damage we did to ourselves,” said Joseph Nye, a veteran diplomat and renowned strategist at Harvard University. “By some estimates, nearly 15,000 American military and U.S. contractors were killed, and the economic cost of the wars that followed 9/11 cost more than $6 trillion. Add to this the number of foreign civilians killed and refugees created, and the costs were enormous.”

Even some Democrats who have questioned Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan agree that Washington overreached strategically. “I think there are going to be many volumes written about our mistakes—Afghanistan will be almost a reference manual on how not to do things going forward,” said Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of the House intelligence committee. “One lesson is that we’re really bad at nation-building, and we should not waste money or time and our most precious resource, our people, to build or impose a government in another land without the tradition or culture to support it.”

James Dobbins, the first U.S. envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan and later the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, calls this 20-year period “the lost generation in American foreign policy.” And 9/11, he says, was the “trigger.” From 1945 to 2000, he argues, every U.S. president had significant foreign-policy achievements to his credit, but since then, four presidents have had almost none. Obama, he notes, managed a couple of major accomplishments, such as the Iran nuclear pact and the Paris Agreement, but Trump reversed them. Why such a meager record in the last two decades? In part, Dobbins says, it was because every president since George W. Bush has been trying to clean up his post-9/11 mess.

“The invasion of Iraq was probably the worst single decision in American foreign policy since 1776,” Dobbins said. But the reasons also lie in the breakdown of national consensus exacerbated by economic crises at home, especially the post-2008 Great Recession.

“You’ve had a significant increase in a generation of people who don’t believe in the American purpose that has guided American foreign policy since the Second World War, with the U.S. as the principal pillar of the international order,” Dobbins said. “The answer goes back to increasing income disparity. We’ve got a whole generation that has not seen benefits of this world order flow to them, with 90 percent of the benefits of the international order flowing to the top 10 percent.”

Worse, during this same 20-year period, the rest of the world took notice of the United States’ many stumbles in the war on terror—and learned new methods of resisting and humiliating the United States. China and Russia used the United States’ twin quagmires, Iraq and Afghanistan, to figure out fresh means of defying Washington. Europeans, disgusted with Biden’s unilateral retreat, are talking once again of going their own way strategically. And the danger is that rivals will further exploit U.S. weaknesses.

One risk is that Beijing, noting Biden’s reluctance to deploy the military in a large-scale way, might seek to further threaten Taiwan—thus forcing the U.S. president to overcompensate in an effort to demonstrate he’s not weak. “That could encourage Biden to be more supportive of Taiwan than we ought to be,” Kilcullen said.

Clearly the Iraq debacle was a huge strategic misstep, but other factors were at play in the U.S. reversal of fortune. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin understood the United States was still focused on traditional military leverage and bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan. So Putin figured out ways to take on Washington asymmetrically by operating in a “liminal” gray area that avoided detection and afforded deniability, Kilcullen said. That meant, in practice, putting in “little green men”—Russian operatives who could not be clearly identified as Russian soldiers—to control Crimea in Ukraine. It also meant using covert methods to undermine U.S. democracy; Kremlin operatives exploited the internal U.S. political divide by hacking the 2016 and 2020 elections and directed a firehose of digital disinformation into the United States that further roiled red-blue tensions. Because of Washington’s overreach abroad and toxic divisions at home, the Kremlin no longer sees the United States as an unchallenged superpower but rather as a wounded behemoth, cut and pierced in innumerable places, with its democracy failing. And Putin no doubt plans to keep cutting away.

China has taken a different approach, Kilcullen said, by closely observing that as shown “in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Western militaries are excellent at high-end technical combat but massively suck at translating battlefield success into successful outcomes outside the narrow, technological definition of warfare.” Beijing has sought to exploit that weakness by expanding its definition of warfare to include economic and political weaponry—for example, its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative. In his book, Kilcullen quotes a Chinese strategist as saying China must “be ready to carry out a war which, affecting all areas of life of the countries involved, may be conducted in a sphere not dominated by military actions.”

Much of this is a response to the United States’ “repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success or to translate that success into a better peace,” Kilcullen wrote. Instead, over the past two decades, the lone superpower allowed itself to get bogged down in a “seemingly endless string of continuous, inconclusive wars that have sapped our energy while our rivals prospered.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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