The Post 9/11 Era Is Not Over

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

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.

Iraq

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.

Guantanamo Bay

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.

Conclusion

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.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.

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While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war. 

A Generation Later

On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.

Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.

Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.

Conclusion

Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”