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Since 9/11, Success and Failure for the U.S. in National Security

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Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters watch explosions from U.S. bombings in the Tora Bora Mountains in Afghanistan, December 2001. (Erik de Castro/Reuters) There hasn’t been anything like another 9/11. But the record of our national efforts overseas is mixed, and their effects on life at home are real.

September 11, 2001, will forever be etched into the minds of the American public. The worst terrorist attack in U.S. history turned what was a blue, clear, sunny morning into a sea of ash, debris, death, and fear. Like many Americans, I can still remember where I was that day. I was sitting in my middle-school social-studies class staring at a television split screen, the burning World Trade Center on the left and the smoke-filled Pentagon on the right, wondering what was going on. That day was and continues to be a turning point in American history, with 60 percent of Americans saying it changed America forever.

Of course, we know how the story proceeds. The terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and the one diverted to Shanksville, Pa., ushered in a new era for U.S. foreign policy, in which searching the globe for terrorists to kill was the first, second, and third priority. The attacks produced considerable sadness in the U.S. as well as justifiable anger, two sentiments the U.S. president at the time, George W. Bush, wore on his sleeve during his speeches and public remarks. In less than a month, U.S. special forces, CIA operatives, and U.S. bombers would descend upon a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to wipe out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, kick the Taliban out of power, and send a message to any terrorist group remotely interested in attacking Americans that the costs of doing so weren’t worth the benefits. Before the U.S. got sucked into the unforgiving and fruitless work of nation-building and counterinsurgency, the early bombing campaign in Afghanistan worked like a charm, killing thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and sending bin Laden scurrying into the Tora Bora caverns (and later, Pakistan).

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 has prompted historians, policymakers, and foreign-policy intellectuals

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