The September 11 terrorist attacks had a huge impact on global politics, but not in the way that many people think. Radical Islamism did not prove to be the world-changing political movement its supporters hoped for and Westerners feared. The attacks’ most important consequence was to stimulate a massive American overreaction that led to the invasion of two countries, prolonged counterinsurgency wars, and ultimately failure and diminishment of American standing in the world. This diminishment was symbolized by the chaotic scenes from the Kabul airport that the world witnessed in recent days.
In the months immediately following the attacks, the United States wrestled with what international affairs experts thought was a completely new problem. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda seemed intent on killing Americans for its own sake. Unlike earlier Palestinian or IRA terrorists, the group made no specific demands; if it could kill three hundred thousand or three million rather than the nearly three thousand who actually died, it seemed happy to do so. If bin Laden could get his hands on a dirty bomb or a nuclear weapon, the stakes would suddenly jump by orders of magnitude, and would justify extreme responses on the part of the United States. Bin Laden seemed to be at the vanguard of a global movement of Islamist extremism at odds with fundamental Western values.
In retrospect, these fears were grossly exaggerated. It proved very difficult for terrorists to get hold of a weapon of mass destruction; terrorists continue to carry out bloody attacks with bombs, guns, knives, and vehicles, but in twenty years have not achieved anything spectacular once their targets learned how to protect themselves better. Their bigger problem was that radical Islamism never caught on as a mass political movement. It continues its destructive work in places like Somalia, northern Kenya, Afghanistan, Mali, northern Nigeria, and similar places, but these are among the poorest and least powerful regions of the world. Only a tiny handful of non-Muslims have ever been converted to the cause, and virtually every Muslim majority state tries to keep it under control.
Communism in its day had broad appeal among educated populations in developed countries, and populist nationalism is sinking roots in established democracies like the United States. In contrast to these movements, radical Islamism is hardly an ideological tidal wave threatening to overturn the global order.
What was destabilizing was the American reaction to September 11, and in particular the invasion of Iraq. The latter was a preventive war premised on a false fear that Saddam Hussein would develop nuclear weapons that could be turned over to terrorists. This threat, it turned out, was nonexistent, and the George W. Bush Administration vastly underestimated the cost and difficulty of occupying two Muslim-majority countries simultaneously.
Many of the lessons learned from these prolonged occupations had to do with the difficulty of constructing sustainable political institutions, which were believed to be necessary to prevent the re-emergence of a terrorist threat. There were three possible objectives: first, to construct a state that could exercise a monopoly of legitimate force over the country’s territory; second, to create a modern state that had the capacity to deliver basic services on an impersonal basis; and third, to make that state democratically accountable to its citizens.
As it turned out, the democracy-building objective was the easiest of the three to accomplish. Both Afghanistan and Iraq held elections, or “election-like events,” that selected political leaders on the basis of genuine political contestation. They were riddled with corruption and fraud, but nonetheless produced results that roughly reflected the will of the people in each country.
What was much harder to achieve was either of the first two objectives. Building a modern state with high capacity and low levels of corruption—what I have labeled elsewhere as “getting to Denmark”—proved to be utterly beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to bring about. Every development organization in the world has something like Denmark in mind as it pursues its “good governance and anti-corruption” programs. But the actual country Denmark took about eight hundred years to get to the place that it is now, and we should not expect similar results to emerge in the poorest and most chaotic places in the world anytime soon.
This left the more modest objective of creating a minimal, patrimonial state that would survive by handing out patronage and resources to the country’s constituent stakeholders, which in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq were the various identity groups defined by ethnicity and sect. This is what some observers have labeled a “rent-seeking coalition,” which nonetheless serves to constrain violence. This objective proved easier to accomplish in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Though modern Iraq was cobbled together from three disparate Ottoman provinces, Iraq has had a longer history of centralized state authority than Afghanistan. The current government in Baghdad exercises little sovereignty over its Kurdish provinces, but its social base has shifted from the Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein to the Shi‘a majority now, and thus better reflects the country’s population.
The fundamental problem with state-building in Afghanistan boils down in the end to one of geography and climate. Mesopotamia was the home of one of the world’s earliest states, and has been controlled by some form of state authority for most of its history. The region centers on a fertile alluvial valley whose flat terrain facilitates the movement of military forces, with Kurdistan being the exception that proves the rule. Afghanistan, by contrast, has never hosted a strong central state in its long history because it is (a) extremely mountainous and (b) exposed on all sides to powerful entities and influences that have used it as an invasion route to other places. The Mughal regime that ruled India from Dehli for several centuries came out of Afghanistan, but found northern India a much more congenial place to build a state. Despite advances in technology like telecommunications and helicopters, neither the Soviets nor the Americans were ultimately able to overcome the formidable challenges posed by Afghanistan’s geography.
The state-building failure in Afghanistan was not simply a matter of geography, however. The American-installed government in Kabul never achieved the legitimacy it needed, elections notwithstanding. Had it distributed patronage in ways that were visible to the country’s identity groups, it might have succeeded, but a lot of its resources went into the pockets of individual politicians who then spirited the funds to bank accounts in Doha or Dubai. There was little investment in a nation-building project, that is, a set of shared narratives and symbols that might give citizens a sense of common identity.
The American failure in Afghanistan was not a failure to build a Western-style liberal democracy there. The underlying problem was more basic, the failure to create even a minimal state that could exercise some degree of authority over at least the urbanized parts of the country.
In Iraq, the basic American mistakes were to invade the country in the first place, dismantle Iraq’s army, and become saddled with a monumental state-building challenge. President Biden’s speech on August 31 suggests that the United States has learned this lesson, and is not about to embark on a similar state-building project elsewhere in the world anytime soon.
The question arises as to why the U.S. government made these mistakes in the first place. One simple answer was arrogance. The September 11 attacks came at the height of a period of American global hegemony that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall and lasted through the financial crisis of 2008. Officials in the George W. Bush Administration crowed that they would move on to topple the regimes in Tehran and Damascus, and remake the entire region in an American image. With no great power backing either Afghanistan or Iraq, they had the freedom to indulge in these risky fantasies. America’s early success in bringing down the Taliban regime in 2001 created the illusion that this could be done throughout the region.
There was another, more subtle source of error, however. Most of the Republican officials in the Bush Administration like Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz had last served in government under the George H. W. Bush Administration at the end of the Cold War. They witnessed the collapse of the former Soviet Union and a string of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, events that happened without the United States or NATO having to lift a finger. The image of joyous crowds welcoming their liberation from dictatorship came from places like Berlin and Prague, and the succeeding democratic regimes did not fall into anarchy or conflict, with the exception of the former Yugoslavia. The officials presiding over the Afghan and Iraq invasions likely had Eastern Europe in mind when they thought of what might happen following intervention there. But they should have been paying closer attention to Yugoslavia and the bloody chaos that emerged from the end of dictatorship in a country that was riven, like the Middle East, by zero-sum identity politics.
Eastern Europe suggests that it would be wrong to draw from the Afghan failure the lesson that foreign efforts to promote state-building fail everywhere and always. Despite recent backsliding in Hungary and Poland, the European effort to modernize the institutions of their new member countries has been modestly successful. But the bottom line remains: the building of a state, and particularly a modern, impersonal state, is an extremely difficult project that has occurred in only a small minority of the world’s countries. It is a project that needs to be undertaken first and foremost by elites within the society; foreigners can help with resources and advice, but in the end will not be determinative. And if successful state-building is that elusive, then U.S. foreign policy must be much more careful in how it intervenes and uses its power abroad.
The long-term consequences of the American overreaction to the September 11 attacks have been dire. The United States spent thousands of lives and trillions of dollars trying to protect itself from relatively minor threats. The effort to justify the Iraq invasion as a case of democracy promotion tainted the very idea of democracy in the eyes of many around the world. U.S. attention was distracted both from rising threats from bigger players like Russia and China, and from domestic problems that were mounting all the while. These grinding Middle Eastern wars were not the main drivers of populism in the United States or abroad, but they were one of a long list of elite failures that contributed to the perception that the ruling class did not care about ordinary Americans. The consequent weakening of American influence abroad is in the end the biggest legacy of the attacks twenty years ago.
Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
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