This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks brought the two 110-story towers down, killing 2,606 people. Another 125 died at the Pentagon, and 265 died on the four airplanes hijacked for the attacks.
In response to 9/11, then-President George W. Bush began a “war on terror” to weaken terrorists around the world and prevent future attacks. In October 2001, a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government that had offered refuge to al-Qaida terrorists. After the invasion, the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led coalition of 42 countries, including South Korea, stayed in Afghanistan until 2014. This was followed by another smaller NATO-led coalition, the Resolute Support Mission, that began withdrawing in 2021. In 2003, Bush rallied a smaller group of nations to invade Iraq and topple the government of Saddam Hussein, but the Multi-National Force–Iraq, a broad coalition that included South Korea, remained until 2009.
As quick victories turned into longer commitments to nation-building, the American public began to sour on Bush, causing his popularity to plummet during his second term. In the 2008 presidential campaign, the charismatic Barack Obama gained traction partly because of his opposition to the Iraq War. As president, Obama successfully withdrew US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but he greatly increased the number of US troops in Afghanistan during his first term before reducing them sharply in his second term.
In the 10 years after 9/11, the US and most of its allies had participated in two regime-change wars. The US and its allies also cooperated in a range of other security initiatives designed to deny terrorists refuge and access to funding. Though frequently overlooked by the US media, the war on terror was marked by broad and, at times, deep international cooperation for collective security.
In the next 10 years, political will to pursue the war on terror in the US and elsewhere continued to weaken as countries turned inward and other pressing issues, such as climate change, gained more attention. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit forcing the fear of terrorism down the list of public concerns.
So where does this leave the war on terror? According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the wars killed 897,000 to 929,000 people, mostly civilians, and cost $8 trillion dollars. These are large numbers. Mired in the pandemic and deeply divided, the US has no will to fight and, after the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, coalition partners are wary of US leadership. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan thus marks the end of the war on terror, almost 20 years to the day after it began.
The end of the war on terror does not mean that war or terrorism have disappeared. Both remain accessible tools for nations and groups to impose their will on others. The key is to reduce the likelihood of their use. That requires a combination of strong defense and effective diplomacy. A weak defense and ineffective diplomacy invite aggression, which escalates quickly into war.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula illustrates this point. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, military policy has focused on maintaining a strong defense to prevent North Korea from invading again. This has worked well. Diplomacy, by contrast, has been less effective. Since 2000, South Korea has tried substantive diplomatic overtures to North Korea three times, but each has fizzled as international conditions have changed. Four US presidents before Biden have tried various diplomatic approaches toward North Korea but have little to show for their efforts.
The biggest danger in the post-war-on-terror world is not the prospect of a resurgence of terrorism (though that threat remains strong), but a weakening of defenses and a lack of interest in diplomacy. This will leave the door open for an increasingly aggressive China, for example, to pursue its interests at will. At the top of its list is the absorption of Taiwan. To do that, China wants US troops out of South Korea first and then Japan.
South Korea will need sophisticated diplomacy and a strong national defense to deal with rising tensions between the US and China. That starts with the recognition that the war on terror marked by an aggressive US posture is now history and that the US has entered a period of retrenchment in world affairs.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.