It might be tempting to conclude that the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan – and the ensuing return of the Taliban to power – has returned part of the world to the exact same place it was on September 11, 2001.
But America’s role abroad – as well as its defenses at home – have changed dramatically in the last two decades. And some foreign relations experts are concerned the risks to the country are higher today than they were on the day terrorists hijacked four domestic jetliners.
“We are less safe today than we were on September 10th of 2001 for many reasons,” said Farah Pandith, senior rellow at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs at Harvard University. “When we think about vulnerabilities in terms of the threat landscape, it’s all kinds of things that we had not imagined before now.”
Here are three ways America’s foreign relations and national security has changed since 2001.
Threats From Non-State Actors
Prior to Osama bin Laden’s coordinated attack on America, the country was mostly focused on traditional warfare from traditional enemies: nation-states like Russia or North Korea.
But non-state actors, like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and later, ISIS, all presented new challenges to U.S. national security.
“Prior to 9/11, there was almost zero preparation for a non-state actor,” said Andrew Card, the Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. “All of the rules of war apply to state actors; non-state actors have no rules, so they can behead you… [and other] terrible things. Geneva Conventions? They don't care about the Geneva Convention.
“They also had new weapons. Nobody then had an IED [improvised explosive device]; you had land mines, but you didn't use them as improvised explosive devices.” Card continued. “It's an asymmetric advantage for the bad guys.”
In 2001, the U.S. Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations had 29 groups. Today, it has 72.
Hate Fueling Extremism
In the weeks following 9/11, President Bush enjoyed a 90% approval rating from American voters, including an overwhelming majority of Democrats. It was the highest mark ever recorded by Gallup
But that America seems like a distant memory to many observers.
“If there's an ‘us versus them’ mindset that is tearing us apart, whether that's Democrat/Republican, whether it's the color of your skin, whether it's how you pray, whether it's what you eat,” Pandith said, “an adversary is going to look at what they can do to [further] pull our societies apart so that they can get a foothold in things.
“Destabilization…is an opportunity for them to do even more harm to us.”
Pandith, who served national security jobs under both Bush administrations as well as the Obama administration – most recently as Special Representative to Muslim Countries – said a widely-accepted “U.S. versus Islam” mentality proved especially dangerous, driving divisions in America and extremism abroad.
“We now not only have the rise of groups that use Islam to recruit, but we have a horrific situation in the homeland where white supremacy has risen. They have funds; they have organization,” she said.
“Two horrible ideologies have had 20 years to learn from each other…How did ISIS use the Internet? What were the means? What were the images? How did they recruit? Those kinds of tools in that toolbox are being used by white supremacists to do what they're doing.”
Pandith says the United States’ security may hinge on young Americans’ ability to resist extreme ideologies.
“When we think through the best inoculation for bad actors, it's to come together as a nation,” she said. “That's dangerous for us, because we know that bad actors are already thinking about ways to get ahead and recruit [young] generations to be able to do their work.”
Technology Has Changed the Rules
“It is not the old days where you had to be able to build tanks and maintain airplanes and you have fuel to fly over somewhere and to infiltrate,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington attorney who specializes in national security and whistleblower law. “Now it's having a proper Internet connection, knowing how to encrypt, [and] knowing how to use virtual networks to hide your location so another nation-state can't find you.”
The threats to America range from cyberattacks to ransomware to disinformation campaigns.
Moss said, since 9/11, they’ve also included a loss of privacy.
“In 2001, when [the government] was pushing some of these boundary lines and what was legally permitted…the public couldn't anticipate how much information would ultimately be at play,” Moss said. “The abilities are arguably outstripping the legal restrictions because it's just so expansive of what technology can provide now.”
Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain of how expansive the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance programs had grown, but many still defend it as necessary to combat the growing threats of foreign cybercriminals.
“Russia – you think of the 2016 election and their efforts, not only to spread disinformation, but also to do things like hack the DNC or get into local state authorities’ databases,” Moss continued, “I think we are less safe and we're struggling to figure out how to address the idea of nonconventional threats.”
He said the United States’ federalist makeup – with cities, counties, and states controlling the majority of America’s infrastructure – creates even more vulnerabilities, which have led to successful cyberattacks on U.S. oil pipelines, local hospitals, and municipal water supplies.
“The NSA is built more for offense; the NSA is built to go out and steal information,” Moss said. “Their job isn’t it to protect the country writ large against cyberattacks.
“The most vulnerable elements ultimately in the country are either [public] or privately-run. You think of all the various energy companies; you think of banks; you think of Facebook, where there's all this raw data sitting there; they're all privately-run. They are not controlled by the U.S. government; they have to put up their own defenses.
“The genius and brilliance and amazingness that is the Internet, has also put us at immense risk.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.