Avoiding a return to history: Lessons for the ‘post’ post-911 world

It has become something of a cliché tagging historical events to personal experience. 

‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ offered an entire generation sombre reflection and a point in time. 

‘Where were you on 911?’ is the catch cry for mine – or at least for some of us taking stock to ponder, reflect or ‘think hard’ about the trade-offs and competing interests of the past two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

I’ll never forget arriving to school – Australian-time – the following day, buzzing from an early morning paper delivery round, entering the school gates and revealing the tragic news to a schoolmate. In the pre-smart phone era, of course, current affairs doesn’t travel with the viral velocity it does today.  

Later that afternoon, we crammed around thick-screened desktop computers – the faded white-turned-yellow-coloured kind – watching loops of the second plane striking the second tower, the pulsing black smoke from the office windows and the eventual rumbling collapse of the towers. 

Although as far away as Australia, we knew we were inevitably tied to the United States. 

Indeed, there seemed a general acceptance over the years that, like it or not, we’d also be caught up in this world-changing event – Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Jakarta, Boston and Sydney were, if not to the same gruesome scale, animated by similar impulses of Islamic extremism. Regardless of specific policies or certain actions over the two decades, our mere existence seemed enough to present us as targets and, with a strange irony, ‘enemy combatants’. 

In the immediate days and years following September 11, 2001, public attitudes seemingly shifted from empathy to then feelings of justice and an iron-like resolve before – at least toward the latter years of the Bush administration – an almost vindictiveness toward American hubris, and what many conclude today as an ‘overreaction’ to taking down Saddam Hussein and the non-UN backed invasion of Iraq. 

The recent Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan – almost two decades to the day from September 11, 2001 – if not ill-timed in its symbolism, brings these reflections back into focus. 

An entire generation has emerged since 911. We must now centre on great geostrategic challenges, President Biden has noted, and not fall mercy to ‘endless wars’ – a lousy shorthand that dumbs down the complexity of foreign fights for domestic gain. 

Notwithstanding our geostrategic loss of an Afghan foothold between China, Iran and Russia, short memories shouldn’t guide decent foreign policy. 

Indeed, if one looks to pre-September 11, 2001, it is short memories, and leaving Afghanistan to its own devices, that created a platform for a more dangerous world – not just 911. 

The primary lesson that American foreign policymakers drew from that tragic event – other than ‘each day being September 12’ – was that fickle regimes and bad governments really do matter. 

“The greatest threats now emerge more within states than between them,” noted then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech on transformational diplomacy in 2006. “The fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power.” 

Despite China and Russia’s ascendance, it is an acutely important lesson that history will demand we return to – one I suspect future foreign policymakers will have to endure in the next 20 years. 

But what other lessons can we draw from looking back over the last 20 years? 

I see three in particular. 

First, despite a withdrawal from Afghanistan, harder and even tougher foreign policy decisions lay ahead. As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently noted in The Economist: 

A far greater test for American foreign policy than Afghanistan will be Taiwan, if it comes under direct Chinese attack. Will the United States be willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters on behalf of that island’s independence? Or indeed, would the United States risk military conflict with Russia should the latter invade Ukraine? 

The second lesson, and most important for Australia, is that alliance efforts will move into a new phase. As the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings notes: 

The clearest lesson to come from the debacle in Afghanistan is that the US has no interest these days in helping those that are incapable or uninterested in helping themselves. For Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Australia, the message is the same: lift your defence game. 

It is positive to see the current Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne ‘up-tempo’, in the wake of Afghanistan, their quest for American assistance with long-range strike weapons, cyber and unmanned capabilities, autonomous and swarming drones, as well as access to missile technology – important capabilities in the age of great geostrategic competition. 

The third lesson, and I concede there is some contestation here, is that democracy promotion still matters greatly in the ‘post’ post-911 era. 

The hostility toward the term ‘nation building’ has been interesting to observe, despite it never being a particular objective in either Afghanistan or Iraq. 

Indeed, reading President Obama’s memoir – A Promised Land – reveals a specific decision to trim down such grand ambitions in Afghanistan to what he called “a set of achievable objectives”, specifically: 

… reducing the level of Taliban activity so they didn’t threaten major population centres; pushing [Hamid] Karzai to reform a handful of key departments, like the Ministries of Defense and Finance, rather than trying to get him to revamp the entire government; accelerating the training of local forces that would eventually allow the Afghan people to ensure their own country. 

Similarly in Iraq, for what it’s worth, Rice adds that “We did not overthrow Saddam to try to bring democracy to Iraq at gunpoint. To do so would have been a misuse of American military power and I would have never advised the president to pursue that idea.” 

Ultimately, Obama’s Afghan objectives offer a helpful reminder of humility in foreign policy. But they also allude to the importance of, at the very least, moving toward a system that works for people rather than a system that preys on them – a decent objective in a dangerous world. 

Certainly, it can’t be understated how important it has been for Allied efforts to offset the risk of Afghanistan – for a fifth of a century – plunging back into darkness. Or from abating transnational threats pouring over her borders, causing 911-style headaches for regional and global stability. 

Clearly, post-withdrawal, it is almost certain that the opposite will now be the case – ‘meet the new Taliban’, accurately reads one recent headline, ‘same as the old one’. 

Ironically, democracy promotion, as important as it is in faraway places, will also be important at home. Observing that ‘regimes matter’ will also be critical in the United States, where deep polarisation, limited consensus-building, excessive recognition-demand and identity politics, have taken over politics and much of cultural life. This is true in many Western nations. 

We certainly hope the next two decades will not be as difficult as the last. Yet we also hope that we never see another September 11, 2001. 

Image: John Moore/Getty Images/Parade

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