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Matthew Kennedy: 9/11 — So much and so little has changed

Former President G.W. Bush observed that 9/11 was seared into the American psyche. It’s hard to imagine the tragedy occurred 20 years ago.

What has changed is America’s counter-terrorism approach to the Islamist terrorism threat and the ongoing acceptance of Muslims within American society.

What hasn’t changed is the country where the 9/11 threat emanated from — Afghanistan.



Afghanistan is known as “The Graveyard of Empires.” It decimated the British and Russian efforts at subjugating the country’s various ethnic groups in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many critics of the Biden administration contend Washington experienced a similar fate. Did it? President Biden asserted the United States achieved its primary mission prior to withdrawing from Afghanistan: eliminating Al Qaeda’s ability to use the country as a safe haven for operational activities.




The United States made several mistakes in Afghanistan.

— First, President George W. Bush diverted military resources from Afghanistan to the Iraq War.

— Second, neither the second Bush nor the Obama administration clearly articulated America’s foreign policy objective toward Afghanistan beyond eliminating it as a staging ground for Al Qaeda’s pursuits.

Neither administration detailed whether America’s Afghanistan policy beyond the Al Qaeda objective entailed “nation-building” or creating a political structure characterized by democratic ambiances with Islamic cultural attributes. Failure to furnish a precise definition prevented U.S. diplomatic, military and other national security-linked officials from focusing their efforts more efficiently and effectively. The Washington Post explored the issue in depth via their report, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.”

The last issue whereby the American experience was different from the British and Russian experiences was how Washington exited the conflict.

The treaty signed by the Trump administration committing the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan placed President Biden in a seemingly no-win situation. The event’s precise details will probably only be revealed when the Biden administration leaves office.

The United Sates would have lost diplomatic credibility within the international community and various Afghan groups if it didn’t honor Trump’s accord. But leaving Afghanistan under the agreement’s terms allowed the Taliban to remain as Kabul’s caretakers and didn’t provide a mechanism for verifying whether the Taliban had severed its ties with Al Qaeda.

How Washington departed Afghanistan strained South Asia’s strategic dynamics. It left a void whose filling has yet to be determined, and may not be ascertained for years to come.

What has changed over the past 20 years is America’s counter terrorism approach, the nature of the terrorism threat, and how Americans perceive the religious group affiliated with the attacks’ participants.

The tragedy removed a previously existing wall preventing the country’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies from sharing information, regardless of issue. The barrier’s elimination by the USA Patriot Act has consequently prevented different terrorist groups from conducting a 9/11 style-type attack for the past two decades.

A second change involves the nature of the Islamist terrorist threat. Washington and its allies degraded Al Qaeda Central’s operational capacity to a skeleton of what existed prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. What has emerged are African, Middle East, and South Asian Al Qaeda-affiliated groups — groups pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda’s central leadership, while financing and initiating their own operations.

What has also surfaced is a group whose lethality surpasses Al Qaeda. This group — the Islamic State — shares similarities with Al Qaeda. It has branches across the globe. The Islamic State’s ideology is more extreme than Al Qaeda, however.

A final change is the attitude many Americans have toward Islam. The event instigated an examination of the religion across the country, since the 9/11 hijackers were practicing Muslims.

Various Muslims experienced a direct/indirect hostility immediately following the attacks. The animosity is fading. America’s Islamic populace is witnessing the same scenario other new ethnic groups have witnessed — an initial hostility, gradual acceptance, and eventual ascension within the country’s socio-economic-political fabric. The pattern occurred with America’s Irish, Catholic and Chinese communities. It is transpiring, however slowly, within the Islamic population now.

The horror of the 9/11 attacks will likely remain with anyone who lived during the day. It was a transformative moment that led to America’s longest war abroad and vast changes at home.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia and currently is based in Paris.


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