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The two decades of 9/11: A foreign policy bite

  • Published at 08:07 pm September 10th, 2021
US Evacuation from Afghanistan
Soldiers with the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, return home from deployment in Afghanistan, at Fort Drum in New York on September 6, 2021 Reuters

After twenty years, with all these successes and failures, Washington seems to have resorted to a foreign policy that centers around restraint or retrenchment

The twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy has come with two paradigm-changing events in 2021 – the Biden doctrine that has formally ended the once seemingly “forever war” in Afghanistan and the rise of Xi Jinping’s “Middle Kingdom” by replacing the West in Afghanistan. In any case, the fate of Afghan politics and security will remain fluid for a long time to come. In such fluidity, the US foreign policy too will remain plugged in with the Afghan theater for years to come. 

While 9/11 pushed for military interventions, trillion-dollar wars, and wasteful defense spending, the rogues such as Al Qaeda or the venomous ISIL failed in ejecting the United States from either Afghanistan or the Middle East. Washington still maintains unfathomed ties with these felons’ archenemies in Riyadh, Cairo, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. However, the collateral damage, in between, led to attacks that pushed the Pentagon and its cohorts to engage in plumbing acts of offensives that damaged US security and loss of lives across the regions.

Also Read: OP-ED: Two decades after 2001, a world fractured

After twenty years, with all these successes and failures, Washington seems to have resorted to a foreign policy that centers around restraint or retrenchment. For better or worse, the Biden administration has undoubtedly come out of the fractured idea of “nation-building by eradicating the Taliban”. Now the world should see the Taliban as Afghans, not as foreigners. 

Arguably, the Taliban are yet to gain the confidence of the West to be a credible political entity. Still, the reality is that it will be dictating regional politics with its allies from Islamabad, Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, and Doha. The Taliban 2.0 has already invited the political heads of these capitals to the inauguration of its government. The message is quite clear here, Washington’s allies in the Asian landmass will need a widespread rethinking of their foreign policy and political assumptions.

Also Read: OP-ED: Life and death in the 9/11 century

However, the inconvenient non-state actors and terror acts are not going to be distant memory. The new future of proxy war, conflicts, and retaliations are already dictating foreign and defense policies. The military force put in place two decades ago as an aftermath of 9/11 is no longer valid, but the genesis of terrorism still continues. 

One thing for sure, nonetheless, the key foreign policy players are likely to oppose another large-scale invasion in the Middle East or Af-Pak region, even if there is a return of 9/11 scale attacks in future.

Neither Beijing nor Washington under President Biden will include state-building efforts in their foreign policy in countries like Afghanistan, lesson well learned. Solutions will lie in political sensitivity and economic justifications, not hypothetical ideologies. No doubt, the Chinese bloc are concerned too, like the West, that security and the high levels of corruption will remain as Afghanistan’s key challenges. The Taliban has human resource deficit too. 

But the temptation and tempo of connecting the Afghan territory with the Belt Road Initiative, China Pakistan Economic Corridor, or even converting the country into gas or transport corridor are quite phenomenal. Not all dollars and deals will be same in Kabul then! Afghans have chosen hardcore radical leaders like Sirajuddin Haqqani or Mollah Yaqoob Mujahid, for now. Again, the message is clear, deal with the new political reality beyond the Western hemisphere and liberal discourse. 

The question now lies for the West and the Afghans - a slight recasting of John Milton's indelible quote - better to reign in hell, or to serve in heaven? The choice is open.

Shahab Enam Khan is Professor of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University 

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