The world was clear on one issue after the 11 September 2001 terrorist suicide attacks on the United States of America. - the world would never be the same again.
Eight years after 9/11, a short review may propose a probable outcome for what used to be called the Global War on Terrorism, or the new, preferred term, Overseas Contingency Operation, under the Obama administration.
Most of the effects of 9/11 remain with us. Detractors of the USA PATRIOT Act point to the fact that the weakening of civil liberties structures was emulated by many other governments in anti-terrorism legislation adopted worldwide. Initially, the US-led offensive against Islamist extremists had wide support on both domestic and international fronts. The 9/11 attacks allowed emboldened combative military planners to conduct pre-emptive military strikes at coalition level - a hawkish strategy that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively. In addition, the 9/11 attack was used to rationalise the Bush Administration's reduced observance of the Geneva Conventions. This resulted in authorisation of 'enhanced interrogation techniques', based on spurious legal arguments, forever associated with Guantánamo Bay. Ironically, it would appear that even these finagled methods failed to yield significant intelligence. At foreign relations level, the United States' no-compromise, unilateralist position alienated historical allies, and, coupled with failures to show much for their actions, tended to isolate the US and engender high levels of antagonism towards it.
Indeed the US election results in 2008 showed the nation had grown weary of its aggressive post-9/11 military actions and political stance. Bush left office with an approval rating for his foreign policies of less than 20%. Newly-elected President Barack Obama committed his administration to reversing policies - the clear intention of which had ensured improved global support for the US.
On the other hand, Obama faces the same Islamist extremist threat, consisting of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The former group is engaged in a relatively confined, if harsh, geopolitical space. Obama's challenge has been to manage the Bush inheritance in ways that ensured extraction, yet without allowing power vacuums to negate hard-won military, political and diplomatic battles, while at the same time being seen to be carrying out his election pledges. The surge in forces and resources initiated by the previous administration has, ironically, allowed Obama's team to move away from the Iraq quagmire, to shift forces and attempt a replication in Afghanistan. With two key regional allies in the form of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan in support, the war's objective is to defeat the Taliban insurgency through a resource-intensive hearts-and-mind campaign. Critically, such a campaign requires two elements: patience and time, both of which the insurgents have in abundance, and which can make the war intractable.
From the US' viewpoint these two elements require political will -which, in turn, requires public and political support at the domestic level, together with coalition support at foreign policy level. Domestically Obama needs therefore to prove qualitative and enduring results. This will underpin his strategy and give it longevity. At international level, there appears to be tacit recognition that American and global security are part of the same agenda. Thus, continued efforts are underway to bolster coalition support for the effort: Thus far, US rapprochement with Germany and France has not yielded significant results, and the climbing casualty figures make the war more unpopular by the day with its major partner, the United Kingdom. The last outcome that Obama would need, is to be seen to support another isolated, unilateralist, position. The present situation seems to preclude a quick solution, but would effectively prevent the major offensive in Afghanistan.
Should Obama be able to outlast the insurgents by time and patience in dealing with this strategic challenge, he may well also outmanouvre them.
Al Qaeda, as an amorphous, transnational force, poses a different problem. Continued pressure on Al Qaeda has meant that its ability to meet, recruit and operate from the region has been significantly reduced. Should the Taliban not be defeated, the situation would allow Al Qaeda to re-establish themselves in the regions of Afghanistan.
Yet, there is also a keen understanding of the limits of the military's limited power, which is often inappropriate to the challenges being faced. Related to this, and in an honest attempt to deal pro-actively at another, critical level, with the issues, Obama went to great lengths to address the Muslim world in June 2009. The consensus is his overture was a success, in that he skilfully demonstrated his connection to and understanding of Islam and its positive role in the US. He has opened up the possibility of an enhanced future dialogue.
There can be little doubt that his words are being carefully studied by those in Islam who can make a difference. Time will tell if an approach of talking softly and carrying a big stick will be the path to success.
Written by: Frank C. van Rooyen, Security Fellow in the Emerging Powers Programme, South Africa Institute of International Affairs