On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes in the United States. Two of the planes hit both World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan and another crashed into the side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, driven off course from its original target. In retaliation, on October 7, the U.S. military, in concert with British forces, began an airstrike campaign against al-Qaeda, the group that orchestrated the deadly attacks, and the Taliban, the Islamic militant group ruling Afghanistan who gave al-Qaeda sanctuary. Then, in March 2003, under the guise of Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda and that the country possessed a cache of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons, U.S. forces invaded Iraq.
The advent of these two wars defined the post-9/11 era, shifting U.S. foreign policy to a new grand strategy rivaling that of the Cold War: counterterrorism. Yet, two decades on, the post-9/11 era lives on. The Global War on Terror stretched beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, sending U.S. forces across the Middle East, as well as North and West Africa, to defeat Islamist militancy. In spite of this, the Biden administration has tried in earnest to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East, specifically the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into a new era focused primarily on countering China and other global threats ranging from cyber to climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the post-9/11 era is far from over.
Afghanistan has descended into chaos as the United States withdraws its troops. In July, President Biden confirmed that the withdrawal would be complete by August 31. As a result, the Taliban positioned itself to retake control of Afghanistan. Once it struck, the militant group defeated the Afghan security and defense forces quickly and the Afghan government collapsed. Now, The United States and its allies are in a mad dash to evacuate their own citizens and Afghans allies before the self-imposed August 31 deadline, a feat that is looking more and more bleak. U.S. and European officials just warned about the possibility of major attacks during the evacuation.
The United States may have decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Yet, removing its troops does not mean the post 9/11-era is over. The United States started the war in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. The U.S. did succeed in killing al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 and the terrorist group is a shell of its former self. However, the Taliban never really left as they regrouped in Pakistan and, as the U.S. troop withdrawal ramped up, quickly regained power. Beyond the Taliban, the most significant, and perhaps immediate, threat to the United States and its allies is the Islamic State Khorasan, a group of former Pakistani Taliban fighters that has already carried out several attacks in Afghanistan. The terror threat in Afghanistan is far from over.
In July, just three months after he announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Biden revealed that the United States will wrap up its combat mission in Iraq by year’s end and that the U.S. military would continue to assist the Iraqi security forces in fighting the Islamic State. Former President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 after eight years of fighting in Iraq. As the threat posed by the Islamic State grew larger in both Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration sent troops back in 2014 in a training and advisory capacity.
Since then, American troops have mostly assisted in the collection of intelligence and advising the increasingly capable Iraqi forces as they fight the Islamic State. Even before Biden took office, the main U.S. focus has been assisting Iraqi forces, not fighting on their behalf. Thus, the mission has not changed; U.S. troops will continue to assist Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, any remaining U.S. troops will face continued threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias that continue to terrorize Iraq. In short, the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq as well as the continued threats from both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias prove that the 9/11 era is not over.
Near the beginning of the war, the United States, under the George W. Bush administration, opened a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. housed enemy fighters captured in the war on terror without allowing the detainees their due process rights or protections under the Geneva Conventions. The legal foundation for the founding of the prison was Congress’s authorization for use of military force in 2001 to pursue whomever was responsible for the September 11 attacks. Approximately 780 individuals have been detained since the opening of the prison in 2002.
Guantanamo Bay’s existence has been quite controversial due to the interrogation methods many consider to be torture. Upon taking office, President Obama promised to close the prison. However, his efforts were curbed by members of both parties in Congress. In February, the Biden administration launched a review of the prison, resurrecting efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. The Biden administration also repatriated a detainee to Morocco, leaving 39 detainees in custody. However, therein lies the problem: Guantanamo Bay is still open.
Despite Biden administration efforts to move the U.S. into a new era of foreign policy focused on countering China, the United States must still contend with the remnants of the Global War on Terror. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan while the Islamic State Khorasan poses a significant threat. U.S. troops remain in Iraq, facing threats from Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias. Lastly, Guantanamo Bay remains open. The post-9/11 era, defined at first by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and then by the continued Global War on Terror, is not over.