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9/11's Aftershocks Reached Worldwide. Here's How It Changed Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As Americans watched the horrors of that September morning in 2001, the world looked on, too. And several countries would feel the aftershocks directly. Some would have their histories changed forever.

RASHA AL AQEEDI: I was back from the market with my mom. It was around afternoon in Iraq.

SIMON: Rasha Al Aqeedi is a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. In 2001, she was a college freshman in Mosul.

AL AQEEDI: My brother and my father were glued to the television. It was hard for anyone to actually believe that America could be under attack. I think immediately we all thought this was a world war in some way or another.

TAMIM ASEY: When the name of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden came in, everybody knew, including my family and ourselves, that this would be ending up on the accounts of Afghanistan and the Taliban regime.

SIMON: Tamim Asey is chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies. He used to work in the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Less than a month after the attacks of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush announced the U.S. and Britain had begun airstrikes in Afghanistan. Tamim Asey's reaction?

ASEY: To be honest, it was happiness. Because of the atrocities and because of the draconian policies of the Taliban regime, many people cheered it. And that's why the Taliban regime fell within 25 days.

ALI AHMADI: This kind of important to understand what happened right after Sept. 11.

SIMON: Ali Ahmadi is a foreign policy analyst who lives in Tehran, the capital of Iran.

AHMADI: What happened was President Khatami, who was a reformist president - he was one of the first people to come out and condemned the attack. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, followed closely after. There was a real outpour of sympathy for the United States. Iran had been supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and so they were kind of on the same side of this. Iran provided intelligence to the U.S., allowed the U.S. to penetrate Iranian airspace if need be. And people generally felt like things were going in the right direction in terms of creating some stability in the relationship. The axis of evil speech really landed in Iran with a thud.

SIMON: That was the State of the Union address in January 2002 on President Bush's axis of evil list - North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

AHMADI: People were shocked. And what Iran realized in that moment is that the United States, either the lesson they learned from 9/11, is that they either have to control the entirety of the Middle East so powerfully that, you know, to borrow an Iranian phrase, you can't drink water without their permission, or that they need to rebuild the Middle East from the ground up socially, politically, religiously. And that requires a lot of destruction.

AL AQEEDI: The rhetoric escalated so much faster than those of us who were in Iraq really anticipated. OK, Saddam, yeah, he's obviously a dictator. No one in Iraq liked him. But what does Iraq have to do with 9/11?

SIMON: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. But on March 20, 2003, the U.S. military mounted what it called a shock and awe campaign that began a years long, bloody involvement there.

AL AQEEDI: What I think the United States failed to do is realize that there was a state - and the institutions of Iraq actually worked. There was no need to completely break them down. That really broke the country and allowed for a lot of sectarianism that may have been bubbling under the surface in the previous years. But with the lack of security, with the availability of weapons, it just became so easy to get it translated into violence that caused hundreds of thousands of lives.

SIMON: And the last 20 years have left many in these countries uncertain about their future, as well as any future relationships with the U.S.

AHMADI: The fallout has been bad for everyone - two decades of tension, sanctions, military threats. When it was signed, the nuclear deal, there were people dancing in the streets. You know, they wanted a compromise that did not compromise the country's integrity on the global stage, and they felt like they had gotten that. That, of course, went away a little bit later. But it's driven down the quality of life for a lot of people, which, as you might imagine, has been especially hard on lower-income Iranians.

ASEY: When we saw U.S. presence for many years in Korea and Japan, it was a long-term commitment. What we expected was that through some sort of an engagement, they would bring this war to a conclusion that would be acceptable to the Afghans, to the region, as well as to the United States' credibility and standing in the world. In fact, up until when President Biden announced withdrawal, the Afghan Taliban was not in control of a single province. And then when President Biden announced a deadline, the Afghan forces thought, why should we fight if they are making peace?

AL AQEEDI: It's almost as Iraq and as a country does not exist. It's just Iraq is the parliaments, the politicians, some of the high-ranking religious figures. This is all U.S. legacy. And I'm not sure I will see a stable Iraq in my lifetime. But maybe this is also just the last true battle that the country had before it finally was stable.

AHMADI: I think the United States ultimately has to decide, does it want to engage in diplomatic conflict resolution with Iran, or does it want to follow a sort of a more familiar pattern of creating pressure and trying to extract concessions? We can find a way forward, but it does need to be with respect to each other's sovereignty rather than sort of coercive confrontation.

ASEY: If I could characterize it in one word, it was a half-hearted approach. Essentially, the Afghan war was fought with how the U.S. public opinion fared, and you don't fight wars based on public opinions. And all of these jihadists, they are back, and they're back emboldened. That is why I believe that if you couldn't fight them or if you didn't want to fight them on the streets of Kabul, I'm afraid you'll have to fight them in the streets in the United States and Europe.

SIMON: Reflections on what the two decades since 9/11 have meant for Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq from Tamim Asey, Ali Ahmadi, and Rasha Al Aqeedi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.