America and 9/11: The Real-World Impact of Terrorism and Extremism

In retrospect, 9/11 did not foreshadow the major changes that now drive U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy.


In Barwana, Iraq, Marines search a house for insurgents, weapons caches and explosives during a patrol on June 16, 2006.
Roe Seigle / Wikimedia

There is no doubt that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, were one of the most traumatic events in modern U.S. history, and still have a major impact on U.S. perceptions of the risk from terrorism.

At the same time, the United States is today withdrawing from Afghanistan with only limited regard to the consequences, phasing down its small remaining cadre of forces in Iraq and reducing its counterterrorism efforts in most of the rest of the world. The central focus of U.S. strategy has now shifted to competition with China and Russia, adversaries such as North Korea and Iran, and important hostile nonstate actors.

The fear of some form of massive Islamist extremist attacks on the United States and the West has faded, and the focus of U.S. strategy that still deals with terrorism and extremism has shifted to a wide range of relatively small and splintered movements seeking to win power in a number of largely Islamic states.

In fact, from today’s vantage point, the events of 9/11, traumatic as they were, amounted to an episode, a “one-off,” rather than a new fundamental threat to U.S. national security.

America’s “Long Wars” in Perspective

In retrospect, America’s “long wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq were never wars against terrorism or extremism, per se. They were instead the result of rather faltering efforts to transform the political and economic system of each country. It is unclear whether letting Afghan factions try to shape a working government or peace after the Taliban was initially defeated would have worked, but it is all too clear from reporting by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Lead Inspector General and the World Bank that the U.S. has failed to create a successful, honest or effective Afghan regime and now seems committed to leaving without a credible peace plan.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 to meet a threat that did not exist and without a plan for what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As was the case in Afghanistan, it engaged in a haphazard and constantly changing exercise in nation-building. It then left Iraq prematurely in 2011 and seems to be repeating the process there in 2021. It has fought two major wars in Iraq—first against Sunni rebels and then against ISIS—without creating a truly functional Iraqi government and a successful pattern of Iraqi development.

The U.S. fight in Afghanistan against the Taliban has been guerrilla and irregular warfare, rather than counterterrorism. Its fight against Islamic elements in the first war in Iraq was, again, more a war against hostile factions than against terrorism or extremism; and its second war in Iraq was fought against a hardline Islamic “caliphate” proto state, rather than an extremist or terrorist movement.

The critical transitions that now affect U.S. national security interests, and the main elements of U.S. strategy, have little to do with terrorism and extremism.

Like Vietnam, both were U.S. ground and air wars that attempted with very mixed success to create effective governance and nation-building. They, too, are likely to be seen as expensive failures. While the U.S. has never issued a credible official estimate of the full civil and military costs of both wars, these costs clearly exceeded a total of $2 trillion dollars—and estimates by Brown University put the cost as high as $6.4 trillion.

Ironically, as any close reading of the State Department country reports on terrorism will show, the real U.S. successes in fighting terrorism came from much lower-level efforts to help other countries create effective national counterterrorism forces, and from supporting international agreements and bodies designed to fight terrorism. In fact, diplomacy and more routine efforts at security assistance had far more success than the two vast expenditures on warfighting.

As for the broader patterns in global terrorism since 2001, they have scarcely been dominated by Islamic extremism. They have instead been characterized by state terrorism and the violent repression of legitimate civil unrest on the part of secular regimes such as Syria, China, Iran, North Korea and, now, Myanmar.

Syria is a particularly grim example. While casualty estimates differ, most United Nations and nongovernmental organization estimates of the number of civilians that the Assad regime and its supporters alone have killed, injured or made into refugees since 2011 exceeds the casualty number for all of the world’s nonstate extremist or terrorist movements since 2001. The same seems true of nonstate actors who have sought to seize power in various states, most of which have not been hard-core Islamist movements.

Broader Directions in U.S. Strategy

As for the broader directions in strategy and national security efforts, one of the few areas of consensus in a deeply partisan United States is a general agreement that U.S. strategy must shift back toward deterring and competing with secular major powers and “rogue” states. Moreover, though with notably less consensus, the focus on terrorist and extremist threats to the U.S. is largely on domestic and secular movements; and the primary defense against this domestic threat is the FBI and state and local law enforcement—not foreign policy, military action, security assistance or the Department of Homeland Security.

The critical transitions that now affect U.S. national security interests, and the main elements of U.S. strategy, have little to do with terrorism and extremism. As both the Trump and Biden defense budgets and national strategy show, the primary threats the U.S. and its strategic partners now focus on are regimes such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

The optimistic hopes of the 1990s have largely vanished. Russia has not evolved as a democracy or a partner, but has rather become a revived authoritarian challenge led by Vladimir Putin. Progress in nuclear arms control may not have failed but has certainly faltered; and nuclear forces are again making radical improvements, along with the rise of hypersonic and precision conventional strike capability. Russian regular military forces, mercenaries and “little green men” have been active in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Mediterranean, and pose a gray zone threat that is real even if it is one of a very different kind.

China’s potential for reform has given way to Xi Jinping and a massive military buildup and efforts to compete on a global level. The South China Sea may have at least partially replaced the Middle East—and certainly any form of terrorism—as the key threat for U.S. strategic and military planning. As the Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget proposal shows all too clearly, the funds for counterterrorism and counterextremism have shrunk to very low levels by defense spending standards, and China and Russia have become the key focus.

One of the ironies of the so-called war on terrorism is that it focused on treating the symptoms of failed or “fragile” states, not the causes of their violence and unrest.

As for other powers and threats, North Korea is a nuclear power, and Iran’s nuclear status is unclear. Some 70 years after the Korean War, North Korea is more of a threat than at any time since the cease-fire. Iran has now been hostile for nearly half a century, and the net impact of U.S. security efforts and sanctions has been the continuation of a hard-line regime that has now developed major links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria and important elements in Iraq and Yemen.

Planning for deterrence and warfighting in these conflicts involves many elements of irregular warfare by state and nonstate actors, but extremist and terrorist groups are comparatively minor players. Moreover, warfighting and deterrence are undergoing radical change in all of the world’s major military powers. Joint all-domain warfare, long-range precision conventional strike capabilities, other forms of precision strike systems and new military efforts in space, cyber and artificial intelligence are all making major changes in the character of military forces.

Irregular and “gray zone” warfare, the role and manipulation of nonstate actors, and civil wars are also significant ongoing threats. In most cases, however, these threats are not dominated by terrorists or extremists. They are dominated by factions and regimes that pursue irregular warfare because it is their best option for competing with the more conventional military resources of larger and more developed powers like the United States. Here, the U.S. also faces threats from nations like China that so far seem to compete more effectively on a civil-military level. Here the U.S. needs to focus more on Sun Tzu than Clausewitz.

Hopes for Global Unity

More broadly, the United States must now deal with the near collapse of hopes for the kind of “globalism” that would unite the world and a shift to stable, functional democracies that would mark the “end of history.” Potential models of global unity such as the European Union have not only lost a key country like Britain, but have also seen several Eastern European states shift away from democracy. U.S. efforts to forge a Trans-Pacific Partnership have ended up benefitting China. And, for at least the last four years, the U.S. focus on burden sharing, gaining economic advantage and avoiding issues such as climate change made the country more of a “nationalist” entity than any form of “globalist.”

Efforts such as those of the World Bank to assess the quality of governance, the “Fragile States Index,” the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, the U.N. demographic estimates and Human Development Indicators, and Transparency International’s corruption ratings all highlight the growing number of nations that face serious internal divisions, domestic economic challenges and have failed or corrupt governance. Some countries have made real progress, but these indices show that more states have declined in capability than gained. Moreover, the hopes for change triggered by various political upheavals—especially broader upheavals like the “Arab Spring”—have instead led to a world in which many governments pose a broader threat to their own people than Islamist extremist and terrorist movements do.

So far, the United States has done little to address these problems and the mix of civil and security challenges that drive them. One of the ironies of the so-called war on terrorism is that it focused on treating the symptoms of failed or “fragile” states, not the causes of their violence and unrest. The U.S. did initially put serious resources into nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, but such efforts faded to minimal levels as military spending dominated. The United States is still a key source of humanitarian aid and seems to have renewed its focus on human rights, but its response to the lasting problems in governance and development remains minimal.

None of this means the United States will not face real threats from terrorism and hard-core extremist movements in the future. An open and democratic society will always be vulnerable in some ways, as recent cyberattacks on U.S. agencies and companies have made all too clear.

In retrospect, however, the trauma of 9/11 was more an incident than a major shift in the threat to the United States, and it was not a harbinger of the major changes that now drive U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy. It also seems all too likely that America’s long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—like the war in Vietnam—will be judged as failed and expensive side shows, gross overcommitments of resources to achieve limited objectives that ended in failure.

Anthony H. Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At CSIS, he has been director of the Gulf Net Assessment Project and the Gulf in Transition Study, as well as principal investigator of the CSIS Homeland Defense Project. He served as a consultant to the Departments of State and Defense during the Afghan and Iraq wars. He has had numerous foreign assignments—including posts in Lebanon, Egypt and Iran—and has worked extensively in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. He is the author of more than 50 books, including a four-volume series on the lessons of modern war.