The attack by al-Qaida terrorists on the United States on September 11, 2001, transformed the field of peacebuilding and the way its practitioners view violent extremism.

The Tribute In Light shines up from Lower Manhattan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on September 11, 2021 in New York City. (Chip Somodevilla/New York Times/Getty Images)
The Tribute In Light shines up from Lower Manhattan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on September 11, 2021 in New York City. (Chip Somodevilla/New York Times/Getty Images)

Stephen J. Hadley was serving as deputy national security advisor and assistant to then-U.S. President George W. Bush that day 20 years ago. “9/11 had a profound effect on how we saw the problem of conflict and what we needed to do in order to address it,” Hadley said in a online discussion hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace on September 10. He was joined in the discussion by USIP Vice Chair George Moose, with USIP President and CEO Lise Grande moderating the conversation.

Moose said that it was “only after 9/11 that we began to focus seriously on what was driving these violent extremist expressions that came to hit us and to hurt us on 9/11.” This, he added, is where USIP’s work has been focused for the last 20 years.

Addressing the Problem of Fragile States

After 9/11, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban-led government after it refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The attacks on 9/11 “in some sense really put us in the business of addressing the problem of fragile states,” said Hadley.

Last month, the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan ending the United States’ longest war, which cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Acknowledging current criticism of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, Hadley said U.S. servicemembers and diplomats who served in that country have a lot to be proud of, in part because there has been no major terrorist attack in the United States in the past 20 years. “We also have a lot to be proud of about the opportunity we gave to the people in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to build a more inclusive society that respects human rights, women’s right, gives opportunities for their youths,” he said. “A lot of that, sadly, is now at risk in Afghanistan,” he added.

The “9/11 Commission Report,” which looked at the events leading up to the attack, had three key themes — the need for the United States to take the fight to the terrorists, to reform its institutions to better protect itself against terrorist threats, and to better understand the root causes of extremism.

USIP’s congressionally mandated Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, led by the two co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission — Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton — found shortcomings in the area of understanding and addressing grievances that fuel terrorism and are exploited by terrorists. The question of what drives extremist ideologies and allows them to gain a foothold in so many parts of the world has been “underappreciated,” according to Moose. “We still have catch-up work to do in that regard,” he said.

Hadley listed governance and corruption as other factors that fuel extremism. “The number one problem in fragile states is governance,” he said.  

While the United States has invested heavily in its military, Hadley said greater investments need to be made in nonmilitary tools that are essential to addressing the drivers of terrorism. But, Hadley added, it is vital that the United States have capable partners in fragile states if these challenges are to be adequately addressed.

Protecting the Gains Made in Afghanistan and Iraq

The return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan has raised questions about the future of the gains made on human rights and women’s rights, in particular. With the United States ending its military engagements in first Iraq and now Afghanistan, Grande asked what could be done to preserve gains made in both countries.

Hadley said USIP has a role to play in maintaining focus on Afghanistan and the Middle East even as the Biden administration inevitably becomes preoccupied with addressing the challenge posed by China and great-power competition.

“We need to maintain our commitment to Afghanistan, to those people who stood with us in Afghanistan to try to build a brighter future for their country,” said Hadley.

Moose reiterated the need to remain engaged with partners in Afghanistan, while Grande acknowledged the need to “recognize that we have a shared moral responsibility to stay in Iraq and to stay in Afghanistan and to continue to promote peacebuilding as one of the core American values and activities in both of these countries.”

The Challenge Posed by Technology

Technology in the wrong hands has increasingly become a driver of conflict worldwide. Terrorist groups have exploited social media to recruit and spread their ideologies.

Hadley was initially optimistic about the technological revolution. He viewed it as a “democratizing force” that would empower individuals to advance the cause of freedom, human rights and rule of law. “As we learned in our efforts to advance freedom and democracy in the world, the empires tend to strike back and strike back hard,” he said. “What I did not anticipate was how authoritarian regimes would skillfully use these tools in order to increase social control, and you see this in China today in big ways.”

As a result, Hadley said: “The bad guys have been ahead of us in exploiting this technology. I think the authoritarian regimes have been ahead of us in exploiting this technology, and we are behind.”

Moose said that technology has also been used for positive ends: making societies more equal and democratic, creating greater transparency into government actions and addressing corruption.

But, Moose contended, “the bad guys are not hampered by parliamentary procedures or bureaucratic processes or legal niceties or ethical niceties as they pursue these.” As a result, he said, the U.S. government will need to be more agile and less worried about how it deploys these technologies, and it will need to invest more in them if it is to succeed against the bad actors.

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