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George W. Bush: the 9/11 Terrorist Attack & War on Terror

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Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked and forced President George W. Bush to reappraise his foreign policy. Learn about what happened on that day, the Bush Doctrine, and the ensuing wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Updated: 09/26/2021

The Attack on the United States

On September 11, 2001, terrorists from several Middle Eastern countries, with the support and funding of the renowned terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, attacked the United States. The assault on the nation was unconventional in nature. Instead of a military invasion, terrorists hijacked four aircraft and used them as projectiles. The first aircraft struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center facility in New York City at 8:45 a.m. Then, just shortly after 9 a.m., a second plane barreled into the World Trade Center's South Tower. It immediately became apparent that the United States was under attack.

Two additional incidents occurred in Washington, D.C., and in western Pennsylvania. In Washington, terrorists used a third plane to assault the Pentagon at 9:45 a.m. In Pennsylvania, hijackers commandeered a fourth plane, but, thanks to a valiant effort from several passengers and crew members, the aircraft crash landed into a field instead of another significant target.

By nightfall, both World Trade Center buildings had collapsed, the Pentagon suffered significant damage and the United States was shaken. Over 3,000 Americans perished during the September 11 attacks, including all individuals on board the aircrafts, thousands at the World Trade Center and dozens at the Pentagon. President George W. Bush addressed the nation with a powerful message that reassured the resolve of the American spirit and promised swift justice for those involved.

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Bush Doctrine

During the presidential election of 2000, Bush promised to use American military force only to eliminate a potential threat to United States security. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Bush highlighted his revamped foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine, as it became known, focused on removing foreign leaders and organizations who threatened the integrity of the United States.

The Doctrine included a specific clause that allowed for a unilateral preventative war to occur in an effort to thwart the potential of another significant attack on the nation. This is an important concept to remember because it was the basis for the Bush Administration's foreign initiatives following the terrorist attacks on the United States.

War in Afghanistan

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, members of the Bush Administration quickly blamed Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the leader of the regime, as the primary culprit in the devastating attack. On September 20, 2001, Bush went before Congress and declared a ''war on terror'' against the Taliban government in Afghanistan because the Taliban offered refuge and protection to bin Laden and tenants of the Al-Qaeda network. While Bush's pursuit of bin Laden was largely retaliatory, his quest to eliminate the entirety of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network reflected his doctrine of preventing future attacks on the United States and its international interests.

Bush provided the Taliban government with the option to hand over bin Laden to American officials, but it refused on the basis of the lack of evidence supporting his role in the September 11 attacks. As a result, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, an extensive war in Afghanistan, on October 7, 2001. The United States, combined with support from Britain, France, Germany and Canada, decimated suspected Al-Qaeda networks throughout Afghanistan and systematically eliminated terrorist leaders.

The United States also bolstered the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban force, which helped to fight a successful ground war. After quickly eliminating the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, allied forces elected Hamid Karzai as the interim leader of Afghanistan at the United Nations sponsored Bonn Conference in December 2001 (he became the official leader in 2004). An international security coalition was also established, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to maintain security within Afghanistan.

The early allied successes in the war in Afghanistan quickly faded following the beginning of a new pro-Taliban insurgency in 2003. The insurgents plagued the Bush Administration's policies within the nation. Crime and corruption ran rampant throughout Afghanistan, and members of the insurgency took advantage of the situation in an effort to eliminate the democratic undertakings in the nation.

The ISAF failed to control the situation, and Bush encouraged the security forces to adopt a policy of counterinsurgency coupled with pacification. This might sound familiar as it was a concept used during the Vietnam War. Notwithstanding, the battles between the ISAF and the insurgency continued throughout the entirety of Bush's tenure in office without a resolution.

War in Iraq

The war in Iraq complimented the conflict in Afghanistan. Bush, citing his doctrine of preventative action, focused on Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein. Bush was convinced that Hussein had been allegedly developing and storing biological and chemical weapons, known colloquially as weapons of mass destruction. He also believed that Iraq was a staging ground for terrorist activity.

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