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Overview of a decade of the war against terror

Rafael Grasa
President of the ICIP and professor of International Relations at the UAB
Rafael Grasa

Rafael Grasa

A decade after the attacks of 11 September, the biggest changes in the world, at least in terms of direct consequences of the attacks, have been related to the domestic, foreign and security policies of the United States, which in turn have led to partial changes - internal and external - in other regions and countries of the world. Now, that some - a few - of these changes have changed themselves, particularly since Obama's inauguration as President, and in view of the preparation for the final departure of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is necessary to take stock of what has happened.

The direction and speed of change was apparent in the press conference given by President Bush on 17 September, when he no longer talked about a "crusade" but instead declared a war on terror, with no rules, in the President's exact words, both beyond and within the country's borders. The first response of the United States was to attack Taliban-governed Afghanistan in an operation that was initially backed even by lawyers critical of American interventions such as Richard Falk. However, the intervention became more complicated: indiscriminate actions soon began (in the words of experts, in breach of humanitarian law - often referred to as the laws of war), civilian casualties continued to mount, and above all, Bin Laden was not captured in the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001. From the very beginning, the United States was faced in Afghanistan with three challenges, which to some extent persist today: a) to establish a new effective political regime, which is trusted by the West, and which could act as a conduit for security policy; b) to continue the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, with increasing regional impact, particularly in Pakistan, but also in Iraq and the Middle East; c) to find and eliminate Bin Laden and deal with the most complicated developments, namely the appearance of franchises around the world in the form of various local terrorist groups, with major offensive capacity (for example, Boko Haram, founded in 2002 and a "sleeper" unit until 2009, was able to attack the United Nations office in Nigeria in late August 2011).

As a result, after the 9/11 attacks there have been two major changes in the United States, and to some extent in the rest of the world after the Madrid and London bombings.

The end result, after a decade is two major changes in the United States, and to some extent the rest of the world, in the wake of the Madrid and London bombings.

First, in domestic policies, there has been a clear restriction on freedom to support the fight against terrorism: we have seen "generously" defined and often controversial lists of potential terrorist groups; the creation of areas designed to circumvent the guarantees of the rule of law (Guantánamo); intrusion into citizens' privacy and communications, often with no control by judicial authorities; restrictions on basic civil rights; relativisation of the international prohibition on the use of torture or degrading treatment; support for corrupt governments and dictatorships to ensure "stability" and to "fight" against terrorism; policies restricting movements or prevention policies based on the definition of risk profiles, which have led to prejudice and discrimination. This process has gone furthest in the United States, but no country has been unaffected, as is apparent by the attempts of autocratic regimes to include all their opponents on the terrorist lists and support for corrupt governments and restrictions on civil rights by many countries of the European Union. There are differences between the United States and Europe, but they are more of a quantitative than qualitative nature.

Second, in foreign, security and defense policies: disregard for the United Nations and for multilateralism in general, aggressive strategies and escalation in military operations, increased military spending (the United States has more than doubled its budget), support for corrupt and dictatorial regimes, and the a posteriori use - after unilateral interventions - of NATO for stabilisation operations. The differences between Europe and United States are greater in this area, partly due to the European Union's status as a "civilian power" and the budgetary constraints associated with the process of creating an economic and monetary union.

Ten years on, things have started to change, though they have done so earlier and more intensely in the US than in Europe, since the beginning of the Obama presidency. A new international security strategy has been defined that abandons pre-emptive strikes, and maintains that fighting terrorism also involves fighting the roots that nourish its attempts to gain legitimacy. It also redefines the scope of the "war against terror" in a more limited manner: the elimination of Osama bin Laden, which facilitates the process of withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan without this looking like a defeat, is not enough. This withdrawal is scheduled for 2014, although the 2012 presidential elections would appear to have an obvious effect on ongoing operations.

There are many unresolved issues, however, such as the disregard for international law, which was highlighted in the extrajudicial and extraterritorial killing of Bin Laden, while appealing to the idea of "justice being done", the constant increase in military spending, the closure of Guantánamo and, among other questions, the repeal of the various restrictions on civil liberties.

Nonetheless, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, I believe we should emphasise reflection on two points. First, the limited short-term effectiveness of the fight against terror, as is apparent in the lack of stability in Afghanistan (an average of 14 attacks every day by the rebels in 2011, which peaked at 43 on August 15) and the proliferation of paramilitary groups in the region and some degree of recovery of Al-Qaeda franchises, such as "Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia." Second, we should reflect on the anxiety arising from the fact that the United States is changing global strategies to combat terrorism more forcefully and more rapidly than Europe.

Will the anniversary be used to present symbolic changes? When, for example, will we see an end or a substantial change to the terrorist lists in the European Union?