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9/11 and the War on Terror: Afghanistan and Iraq

9/11 and the War on Terror: Afghanistan and Iraq

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Identify the successes of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom

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what's covered
Few events in U.S. history have transformed the worldview of a generation of Americans. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11), was one of those events. As millions of Americans grappled with the aftereffects, President George W. Bush initiated the “War on Terror”. This war resulted in a major expansion of the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

This tutorial examines 9/11 and the War on Terror in three parts:

  1. The Election of 2000
  2. 9/11
  3. Afghanistan and Iraq

1. The Election of 2000

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the nation experienced one of the closest and most contentious presidential elections in its history. In the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal, Republicans set out to “restore honor and dignity” to the presidency. Their candidate was George W. Bush.

Bush, the Governor of Texas and the eldest son of former President George H. W. Bush, portrayed himself as a “compassionate conservative” in domestic affairs and a believer in nonintervention abroad. His message appealed to Party leaders and many Republican voters. It also attracted voters disgusted by the impeachment scandal and worried by U.S. involvement in Yugoslavia and Somalia.

The election between George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore, who was Clinton’s Vice President, was incredibly close. Approximately 100 million votes were cast in the 2000 presidential election. Gore topped Bush in the popular vote by 540,000 — 0.5 percent.

The outcome was decided in Florida, where early returns revealed that Bush had won — by only 527 votes. Due to possible irregularities in four counties dominated by Democrats, Gore asked for a recount of the ballots by hand.

The election was ultimately decided by federal judges. When Gore protested the declaration of Bush as the winner, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the recount to continue. The Republican Party appealed the state court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. On December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court ruled to stop the recount in a 5-4 decision. Bush received Florida’s 25 electoral votes and, with a total of 271 electoral votes (to Gore’s 266), became the 43rd President of the United States.

This map shows the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. While Bush was popular in rural areas and won the majority of states, which enabled him to win the Electoral College, Gore dominated in urban areas and in populous states, which enabled him to win the popular vote.

2. 9/11

Unlike George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who sought a “new world order” in which the U.S. took an active role in international affairs, George W. Bush desired a foreign policy influenced by unilateralism.

terms to know
“new world order”
Term used by George H. W. Bush to describe his vision of American international relations and peacekeeping after the end of the Cold War.
Conducting foreign affairs with little or no consultation with other nations, including one’s allies.

President Bush put his foreign policy approach into action immediately following the events of September 11, 2001. On the morning of 9/11, teams of hijackers from the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda seized control of four American airliners. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The Statue of Liberty with the World Trade Center burning in the background on the morning of September 11, 2001.

term to know
A militant Islamist group founded by Osama bin Laden.
did you know
Morning news broadcasts began to provide video of the World Trade Center moments after the first plane hit the Twin Towers. Assuming that the first crash was an accident, the broadcasts captured the impact of the second plane as it hit the other tower. In less than two hours, damage resulting from the impacts and the explosion of jet fuel caused the upper floors of both towers to collapse onto the lower floors, reducing both of them to smoldering rubble.

The passengers and crew of both planes, as well as 2,606 people in the World Trade Center — including 343 New York City firefighters — died.

Additional Resource

Visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum website to listen to the audio accounts of people who were involved in the 9/11 recovery.


(You won't be tested on this.)

Three of the four airliners hijacked on September 11, 2001, reached their targets. United Airlines Flight 93, on its way to impact the Capitol or the White House, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania as the result of a struggle between the passengers and the hijackers.

The third hijacked plane was flown into the Pentagon building in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, killing everyone on board and 125 people on the ground. The fourth plane, also heading towards Washington, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers who were aware of the other attacks stormed the cockpit to disarm the hijackers. Everyone on board was killed.

That evening, President Bush promised the nation that those responsible for the attacks would be brought to justice. Three days later, Congress issued a joint resolution authorizing the President to use all means necessary against the individuals, organizations, or nations involved in the attacks. On September 20th, in an address to a joint session of Congress, Bush declared war on terrorism:

President George W. Bush, War on Terrorism, 2001

“Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done….

The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics—a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans, and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children….

The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them….

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen….We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
think about it
  1. Why do you think President Bush makes a point of distinguishing radical extremism from mainstream Islam?
  2. According to President Bush, how will the United States respond to the 9/11 attacks?
  3. What similarities and differences do you notice between President Bush’s response to 9/11 and U.S. containment policy during the Cold War?

In his speech, Bush blamed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the attacks. A wealthy Saudi Arabian, bin Laden gained the attention of the U.S. in the 1980s when he joined the Mujahideen to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew from the country during the late 1980s, but bin Laden and al-Qaeda maintained a presence in the country. In 1996, the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and established a fundamentalist Islamic government.

term to know
A fundamentalist Muslim group that brutally ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
did you know
After taking power, the Taliban prohibited women from attending school and banned Western films and music.

Bin Laden resented the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia during and after Operation Desert Storm.

term to know
Operation Desert Storm
The U.S. name of the campaign that coalition forces waged against Iraq from January to April, 1991.

Bin Laden also rejected American culture, including religious pluralism, multiculturalism, and consumerism. He opposed U.S. support for Israel which, along with Saudi Arabia, was home to Islamic holy places. For these reasons, bin Laden declared a “holy war” against the United States.


Al-Qaeda terrorists participated in a 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, in which a truck-bomb exploded and killed six people. In 1998, members of al-Qaeda set off bombs at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 people. On October 12, 2000, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which was anchored off the coast of Yemen, that killed 17 American sailors.

Following the September 11th attacks, U.S. intelligence believed bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan. As a result, President Bush demanded during his speech to Congress that the Taliban turn bin Laden over or face attack by the United States. By promising that the U.S. would “pursue” any nation that provided aid or sanctuary to terrorists, Bush added a preemptive war provision to his foreign policy; one that became known as the Bush Doctrine.

term to know
Bush Doctrine
The belief that the United States has the right to protect itself from terrorism by means of preemptive wars or the removal of hostile governments, in favor of non-hostile (preferably democratic) regimes.

Like containment policy during the Cold War, the Bush Doctrine has been the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy, in terms of longevity and comprehensiveness, since 2001.

3. Afghanistan and Iraq

The Bush Doctrine produced the two most significant foreign interventions that the U.S. has undertaken in the 21st century.

  • Afghanistan

When the Taliban refused to turn bin Laden over to the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks, the United States responded with a bombing campaign that began on October 7, 2001. Shortly thereafter, ground troops invaded Afghanistan.

Marines fight against Taliban forces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Helmand was a Taliban stronghold. (credit: “DVIDSHUB”/Flickr)

The conflict in Afghanistan was named Operation Enduring Freedom by its planners. U.S. forces allied themselves with a coalition of tribal leaders who had been fighting the Taliban for several years. By November of 2001, the operation ousted the Taliban from Kabul, destroyed al-Qaeda's training camps, and captured or killed a number of al-Qaeda's leaders. However, bin Laden and some of his followers escaped across the border to mountain sanctuaries in northern Pakistan. The United States assumed the burden of establishing a new government and rebuilding Afghanistan.

term to know
Operation Enduring Freedom
The name of the campaign waged against the Taliban in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.
  • Iraq

At the same time that the United States took control of Afghanistan, the Bush administration sought to intervene in Iraq, a nation that Bush had identified as part of an “axis of evil” (along with North Korea and Iran), and a threat to the U.S.

Relations between the United States and Iraq had been strained since Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

did you know
Following Operation Desert Storm, peace resolutions authorized the United Nations to take any steps necessary to prevent Iraqi aggression. These included economic sanctions and military intervention if Iraq was found to be developing weapons. During the early 2000s, President Bush and his advisors referred to these weapons as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that could destabilize the region.

One faction within the Bush administration, which included Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, believed that Iraq was stockpiling WMDs despite UN inspections and economic sanctions. Members of the administration argued that a recalcitrant Iraq would embolden al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Although others in the administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, advised caution, the case for intervention in Iraq was presented to the American people. Although UN inspectors located and destroyed stockpiles of Iraqi weapons after Operation Desert Storm, members of the administration argued that some weapons remained.

In October of 2002, President Bush told the nation that the United States was “facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud”.

In 2003, Colin Powell told the United Nations General Assembly that Iraq had built a chemical weapons factory, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding WMDs in his palaces throughout the country, and that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Africa to build a nuclear bomb. All of these assertions, which were based on secret information provided by an informant, were later proven false.

Although the United Nations dismissed these claims, the U.S. ended relations with Iraq on March 17, 2003. The United States had a small coalition of supporters, including Great Britain, Australia, and Poland, but most of the international community opposed preemptive intervention in Iraq. On March 19th, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

term to know
Operation Iraqi Freedom
The name of the American invasion of Iraq, based on a suspicion that Saddam Hussein had WMDs.

Like the intervention in Afghanistan, the operation against Iraq initially went smoothly, and appeared to end quickly.


U.S. forces occupied Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, within a month of the invasion.

Americans watched on television as U.S. soldiers and Iraqis toppled statues of Saddam Hussein, who was deposed and went into hiding. In May of 2003, President Bush proclaimed victory on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, with a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” prominently displayed behind him.

President Bush gives the victory symbol on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003.

big idea
Although intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq resulted from slightly-different motives, the occupation and reconstruction of both nations proved to be difficult, complex, and seemingly endless. There were few American deaths during the initial phases of both campaigns. However, thousands of Afghans and Iraqis died, and infrastructure and services in both countries were destroyed. The invasions destabilized both nations, leading to violent sectarian conflicts. Rather than being seen as a liberator, the invasions produced widespread resentment of the United States. The U.S. was not prepared for long periods of occupation in either location, and had not anticipated the law and order problems involved with occupation.
Following the close election of 2000, President George W. Bush had little time to implement his domestic and foreign agendas. Instead, he focused on developing an appropriate and effective response to al-Qaeda’s deadly attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Shortly after the attacks, the U.S. began a “War on Terror”. U.S forces attacked Afghanistan, which harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Later, President Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq, based on the belief that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, and sought to build more. Both invasions indicated that the U.S. was following the Bush Doctrine, but difficulties to come showed that the administration had not foreseen the consequences of doing so.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Election Map, PD, Statue of Liberty with World Trade Center Burning in the Background, PD,, President George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation on the September 11th Attacks, September 20, 2001,George Bush Whitehouse Archives. Retrieved from, Derived from Openstax tutorial 31. 3 & 32.1 Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Bush Doctrine

the belief that the United States has the right to protect itself from terrorist acts by engaging in preemptive wars or ousting hostile governments in favor of friendly, preferably democratic, regimes.

Operation Desert Storm

the U.S. name of the campaign by coalition forces waged against Iraq from January to April 1991.

Operation Enduring Freedom

the name of the campaign waged against the Taliban in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

the name of the American invasion of Iraq under the suspicion that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMDs.


a fundamentalist Muslim group that brutally ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.


a militant Islamist group originally founded by Osama bin Laden.


conducting foreign affairs with minimal or no consultation with other nations, including one’s allies.

“new world order”

phrase coined by George H. W. Bush to describe his vision of American peacekeeping and international relations after the end of the Cold War.

People to Know
Colin Powell

U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush who helped to implement the “war on terror.”

Dick Cheney

vice president under George W. Bush who wielded unusual power and influence in the White House and urged the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Donald Rumsfeld

Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush who, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, advised the ill-fated and pe-emptive war in Iraq to defend the United States against perceived threats.

George H.W. Bush

vice president under Ronald Reagan and Republican President from 1989-1993, who navigated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “new world order” that followed the end of the Cold War, including Operation Desert Storm that turned back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

George W. Bush

republican president and son of former president George H.W. Bush who served as president from 2001-2009 following the contentious election of 2000; the terrorist attacks of 9/11 defined his term in office as he launched a “war on terror” that committed American troops and resources to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Osama bin Laden

leader of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda who was behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Saddam Hussein

President of Iraq from 1979 until a U.S. led coalition of forces removed him from power in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

WIlliam J. Clinton

democratic president from 1993-2001 who, as a “New Democrat,” advocated a compassionate conservatism that combined socially liberal policies with fiscal conservatism.