The attack on the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001 was an atrocity that stunned hundreds of millions in the U.S. and across the world. It was also a pivotal moment in the long term decline of the American empire.
Al Qaeda aimed its attack at a visible symbol of American imperialism but as Socialist Alternative pointed out at the time, “The main victims were workers: secretaries, firefighters, waiters, and janitors, etc. of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.”
It was completely predictable that the reactionary Bush administration would respond with a policy of maximum revenge (“shock and awe”) seeking to use the carnage as an opportunity to reassert imperialism’s role in the Middle East and globally. Bush, with the eager support of the Democrats, used the victims of 9/11 to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq both of which ended in disaster for the U.S. The odious Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest also did not hesitate to lie to the American people (again with the complicity of Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) to try to connect the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 when in fact he had nothing to do with it. 9/11 was also used to justify the massive expansion of state surveillance and militarization within the U.S. itself codified in the Patriot Act.
Rather than “crushing terrorism” both wars strengthened deeply reactionary forces including the Taliban and ISIS. The human consequences for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East and Africa affected by the endless “war on terror” – including Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya – have been nothing short of catastrophic. But the wars also had a profound impact on mass consciousness, weakening illusions in imperialism around the world and in the U.S. itself, a process which continues to this day.
What Led to 9/11 – the End of the American Century
The American empire rose to global “superpower” status in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis and imperial Japan. It proclaimed itself to be the defender of democracy and “freedom.” In reality imperialism defended the interests of American corporations to plunder and profit. It was prepared without hesitation to overthrow democratically elected governments which got in the way of the plunder and profit and it backed any number of vicious, bload-soaked dictatorships.
The “American century” began to unravel 30 years later when the superpower was laid low in Vietnam. By this point the U.S. was also being outpaced economically by its German and Japanese rivals. But unlike in the case of the decline of the British empire in the early 20th century there was no other imperialist power who could realistically take the place of the U.S. globally. Neither the key European powers nor Japan were able to play this role.
The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan goes back 40 years to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The CIA helped arm and train the Mujahideen resistance against the Red Army who entered Afghanistan in 1980 to back a pro-Soviet regime. In the short term, the U.S. intervention was very successful from the standpoint of imperialism. The defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan helped to destabilize the Soviet Union itself on the road to the counterrevolutionary restoration of capitalist rule at the end of the 1980s. The “collapse of communism” gave the U.S. ruling class a temporary reprieve. It underlined the status of the U.S. as the sole global superpower even if its relative economic and political power continued to erode in the 1990s.
But in the long term, support for the pro-feudal Mujahideen which included the elements that became the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had other effects. Bin Laden then turned on his U.S. sponsors in a series of attacks on U.S. targets culminating in 9/11. This is hardly the first time that the intervention of imperialism in other countries has rebounded against them in unpredictable ways.
Of course it was no surprise that the U.S. ruling class immediately sought to turn this setback to their advantage and to reassert themselves on the world stage and in a region seen as being of strategic importance because of its vast oil reserves.
Why Did the U.S. Stay So Long?
While the U.S. managed to overthrow Saddam Hussein, kill Osama bin Laden and at least temporarily degrade Al Qaeda, this did not lead to withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. New reasons were invented to justify ongoing occupation including building stable pro-Western regimes, a project which was an utter failure. They even pretended to care about human rights including the rights of women in Afghanistan. Meanwhile Iran, another U.S. enemy, gained influence in Iraq, and the Taliban proved very resilient.
It is worth asking why the U.S. stayed so long, especially in Afghanistan, given the apparent pointlessness of it in relation to any wider coherent strategy as well as the ferocious costs. One estimate from the Costs of War Project at Brown University is that the cost of waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria will be $5.8 trillion by the end of 2022 including the interest on debt.
These are incredible sums (some estimates are higher) but all that money was going somewhere and it wasn’t going to ordinary people in the occupied countries! There were American corporations making massive profits including defense contractors and weapons manufacturers. These firms in turn are closely linked to key politicians in Congressional “defense” committees who then are rewarded with lucrative jobs when they leave Congress by these purveyors of death. This nexus shows the increasingly parasitic nature of contemporary capitalism and U.S. imperialism in particular.
What is also indisputable is the horrific human toll of the “war on terror.” A new study from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, estimates that the various wars under this heading displaced 38 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines of whom 26.7 million eventually returned home. The study also estimated these wars caused the deaths of 897,000 to 929,000 people, including over 364,000 civilians.
In Afghanistan, it is incredible that the outcome 20 years later is the return of the Taliban who are only supported by a minority of the population. The explanation lies in the nature of the occupation. This was exemplified by the U.S. drone attack against an alleged ISIS target outside Kabul Airport during the chaotic exit which turned out to be ten innocent people including seven children. The U.S. spent vast sums supplying and training a military which was as brutal as the Taliban and a series of corrupt regimes with even less support than the Taliban. The outcome is already a disaster for Afghan working people, especially women, as the Taliban make clear they will be largely pushed out of employment and public life.
The Humiliating Exit
After 20 years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan ended in predictable failure. There is little doubt that the chaotic exit from the Kabul Airport has been the biggest humiliation of U.S. imperialism since the scramble to leave Saigon in 1975, but there have been other defeats in between – in Iran, Iraq and Somalia to name a few.
Comparison with Vietnam is natural but there is a huge difference. In Vietnam there was a social revolution that ended the rule of the imperialists, capitalists, and landlords although it did not lead to a workers’ democracy but rather a Stalinist dictatorship. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the Taliban are utterly counterrevolutionary and seek to drive society backwards to patriarchal feudalism as they did when they ruled in the 90s.
The U.S. is now at its weakest point in the Middle East in a very long time and it has lost influence in Central Asia which is also of strategic importance. But the idea that U.S. imperialism has decisively collapsed and that the U.S. is now “just another country” is a gross exaggeration. The U.S. still has the largest economy in the world with the most powerful military. But while it continues to be the case that neither the EU nor Japan can replace its global role, American imperialism today faces a very real challenge to its dominant position from rising Chinese imperialism.
The chaotic exit from Kabul has certainly exposed again how far the U.S. has strayed from the “multilateral” approach it espoused under Bush and Obama of working with its European and other “allies.” The war in Afghanistan was supposedly a NATO operation (article 50 of the NATO Charter was invoked for the first and only time after 9/11) but in the end the U.S. left without consulting its allies. Biden again shows, as with his approach to China, that his foreign policy is more a continuation of Trump’s in substance despite different rhetoric.
The ruthless shift in approach is also revealed by the diplomatic storm over a deal to provide U.S. nuclear submarine technology to Australia, also involving Britain. This deal (dubbed AUKUS) meant the cancellation, without notice, of a contract allegedly worth $66 billion for France to provide diesel submarines to Australia. The French are so furious that they’ve withdrawn their ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia. But what is revealed is the impotence of the French and the European Union on the global stage. The U.S., albeit far weaker than in the past, is now concentrating its resources for the new Cold War with China.
In fact, leaving Afghanistan is very much part of the U.S. “pivot to China” begun under Obama and continued under Trump and Biden. While Biden presented his decision solely in terms of the pointlessness of the U.S. remaining, it is extremely clear that it relates to the overall priorities of the U.S. ruling class. Of course the “war on terror” will continue although on a smaller scale. The U.S. government reserves the right to use its drones or bombers to attack any target it sees fit and still has forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Is the outcome a decisive victory for Russia and China? There is no doubt that Putin and Xi want to present it this way but they also fear the repercussions of instability in Afghanistan spilling across the border. The CCP is obviously particularly worried about anything that could contribute to an explosion in Xinjiang. Of course the Chinese would want to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and integrate it into the Belt and Road Initiative but that also requires some degree of stability. On the whole, they would have probably preferred that the U.S. stay.
Political Ramifications in the Middle East
The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq undoubtedly strengthened reactionary forces in the Middle East that it was allegedly meant to destroy. At a certain level though, presenting the Taliban and ISIS as the key “enemies” of the U.S. helped to cover the real agenda of imperialism, maintaining control of resources and markets vital to the corporate interests and increasing the repressive apparatus at home.
For forces like ISIS, on the other hand, the occupations were a massive recruitment opportunity. Meanwhile regional imperialist actors like Iran and Saudi Arabia were able to whip up ethnic and religious sectarian divisions – especially between Sunni and Shiite Muslims – as part of pursuing their own ambitions. In this way a “carnival of reaction” developed with a somewhat symbiotic relationship between all these different forces.
But in the longer run the endless “war on terror” had other and more complex effects. It destabilized a number of right-wing U.S. backed dictatorships and thereby contributed to the “Arab Spring” uprising in 2011 across North Africa and the Middle East. Tired of poverty and corrupt elites backed by Western imperialism, young people rose up in their millions from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria. While these upheavals ultimately failed to transform society and provide a future for young people, an important marker was laid down.
In 2019-2020, a new wave of revolt, swept the region, including Sudan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon against corruption, inequality and repressive, reactionary regimes. The revolts were again driven by young people, with a clear anti-sectarian internationalist character in a number of cases. To take just one example, it was remarkable that the movement in Iraq which faced ferocious repression with hundreds gunned down in the streets, explicitly included Sunnis, Shiites, and non-Muslims and sent its solidarity to the movements of young people in other countries. These events show that the reactionaries belong to the past and that movements of working people and youth across ethnic and sectarian lines have massive potential to transform society.
Political Ramifications in the U.S.
9/11 also produced a carnival of reaction within the U.S.. The ruling class hoped that 9/11 would help them break through the “Vietnam syndrome,” the reluctance of the American population to support military adventures involving ground troops after the defeat in Vietnam. There was initially massive support for invading Afghanistan in 2001. The whipping up of nationalist hysteria by the Bush administration and its ghouls inevitably led to a wave of violent attacks on Muslims. Similarly today, the whipping up of nationalism against China in the context of the pandemic and the new Cold War by Trump and now Biden has directly contributed to anti-Asian attacks.
But within a year after the attack on the Twin Towers, the drive to war in Iraq led to massive opposition as people saw through the pathetic lies being used to justify it. On February 15, 2003, 500,000 marched on the streets of New York, as part of a global day of action aimed at stopping the invasion. Between January and April 2003, 36 million people across the planet took part in nearly 3,000 antiwar protests.
The subsequent course of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan only reinforced the “Vietnam syndrome.” Both Obama and Trump ran for office promising to end the “forever wars.” This was a massively popular position but the military industrial complex worked overtime to prevent it.
As stated, it was ultimately broader geopolitical considerations that pushed Biden to actually end the occupation of Afghanistan. Polling shows that there was overwhelming support for reducing or completely withdrawing U.S. forces. According to a recent PBS/NPR/Marist poll 71% think the U.S.’ role in Afghanistan was a failure.
However, the chaotic nature of the exit clearly damaged Biden politically. Republicans have seized on this as evidence of Biden’s “weakness.” But ordinary people were also affected by the desperation of so many who worked for the U.S. trying to leave and the well-founded fears of urban women about Taliban rule. It is very striking that three quarters support allowing Afghan refugees to enter the U.S. to escape the Taliban, “among the highest for any refugee group on record” according to PBS/NPR/Marist. While one would expect the attention of ordinary Americans to wane now that the occupation has ended, this may not be the case with Afghanistan, especially given the increasing brutality of the Taliban regime.
Even more striking is the comparison of attitudes about the threat of terrorism compared to twenty years ago. In 2002, 56% said international terrorism was the biggest threat to Americans compared to 50% who said domestic terrorism. Today the response has flipped with 49% saying domestic terrorism is the bigger threat compared to 41% who say international terrorism.
The main terrorist threat in the world is imperialism itself, not just U.S. but Chinese and European imperialism as well. Imperialism means the massive destruction and squandering of resources and literal mass murder in order to maintain the power of corporations when we have been told that there’s not enough for a decent healthcare or education system here in the U.S. Compared to the trillions expended on endless wars what would it cost to vaccinate the whole world? Or to transition to renewable energy? The fight for a decent, socialist future means opposing all imperialism, but certainly in the U.S. the top of the list is American imperialism itself which used the carnage of 9/11 and the utterly reactionary Al Qaeda they helped to create to justify crimes against humanity.