9/11: Twenty Years On

9/11: Twenty Years On

Photo taken during the 10 year anniversary in New York. Credit: Ella de Kross via Unsplash

Lessons from Peacebuilding

Twenty years ago, I walked into the offices opposite the UN Headquarters in Manhattan as the first plane struck the World Trade Center. Soon after, diplomats from every corner of the world streamed out of the UN building in a mass evacuation as news of the terrorist attacks shook the world. Later that day, we watched New Yorkers, traumatized and covered in ash, looking for a way home.  

I had worked on international policy related to war for years, but this was the first time war had reached my own community. It was the first time it felt so close to home. And for the first time I saw my local community mobilize heroically to respond to heal the wounds of war.

While across New York and the rest of the nation, Americans focused on saving lives, remembering the dead, and healing our collective trauma, the US government quickly launched a military invasion of Afghanistan. The majority of the US public – and many other governments – supported the war, but not everyone did. US peacebuilders, as well as one brave member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee, spoke out against the invasion, urging a response based on international law and the prevention of further violence.  

Now, as we commemorate two decades since 9/11, “America’s longest war” is coming to a chaotic and uncertain end. The Taliban have retaken Afghanistan after hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost – Afghan, American, and others – and over $2 trillion has been wasted through two decades of war.  

Now, as we commemorate two decades since 9/11, “America’s longest war” is coming to a chaotic and uncertain end

Over the past few weeks, the US launched one of the most complicated evacuation efforts in history to help its citizens and allies escape. But for ordinary Afghans and their communities, the struggle for safety, human rights, and ending cycles of violence continues.

What are the lessons we should take from the past twenty years of war? Is there a better way to deal with violence and terrorism? Is building peace even possible in our world today?  

Here are five lessons local peacebuilders have taught me.

1. .War is local and global. Peace must be too.

Decisions made at the UN or in global capitals like Washington DC, do not reflect the realities of how war plays out in local communities, cities, and towns. The people closest to those realities understand the conflicts best. At the same time, our world is interconnected and local violence can quickly escalate into global conflicts. Efforts to build peace should be rooted in local realities and connected to global diplomatic and peacebuilding processes.

2. Peacebuilding is less costly and more effective than war.

We have seen again and again that violence leads to further violence, costing more lives and creating entrenched cycles of conflict. Breaking cycles of violence and preventing war or terrorism requires rejecting violence and pursuing nonviolent means of advancing justice and security. Unfortunately, peacebuilding continues to be massively underfunded compared to spending on militarized responses.


3. Preventing war and building peace is a long-term process.

Responding with violence when we are provoked is a much easier approach than the difficult, long-term work of bridging divisions, promoting justice, and transforming relationships. Peacebuilding requires patience, creativity, responsiveness, and long-term investment. But the results will be a much safer, more just, and more resilient world.  Even after internationals have left a country or donor funding dries up, local peacebuilders continue working with their communities whatever the circumstances they face.  Witness the heroic work of the Afghan Women’s Network to secure and protect the rights of women and girls through years of war and political turmoil.  

“I have been working in this country for the past 20 years. This is what we do. This is our job,” Mahbooba Seraj, Founder, Afghan Women’s Network, National Public Radio.

After twenty years of war in Afghanistan, the US and international community should not abandon the hard road ahead for peacebuilding.  Long-term support for civil society activists, women’s movements, youth, and all those working for positive change in the country is needed now more than ever.

4. Locally-led approaches to advance justice, heal divisions, and create security are our best chance for building long-term peace.

Trying to solve conflicts by intervening with solutions – whether military campaigns on development programs – that are designed by external “experts” is not working. 

Supporting locally-led peacebuilding, human rights, and reconciliation efforts offers much more promise for creating durable solutions. Local peacebuilders understand the conflict dynamics, historical relationships, culture, and deep-seated grievances much better than outsiders and are better equipped to design and lead efforts that can succeed. The international community has an important role to play in supporting, funding, and amplifying the work of local peacebuilding. 


5Our own safety depends on the safety of others around the world.

The 9/11 attacks ended the myth that the US was immune from the kind of insecurity that many others in the world experience every day. But this should also open our eyes to the undeniable connection we have to the rest of the world. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught years ago, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This does not mean we need to launch more wars in the name of human rights and democracy. Indeed, such wars have proven failures time and again. What it means is that we cannot turn our backs on communities caught in systems of oppression and violence. Whether here in our own country or around the world. Building peace worldwide starts by building peace at home.

we cannot turn our backs on communities caught in systems of oppression and violence

Local communities working for peace and justice in the US have understood this interconnection for generations. The TRUST Network is building a locally-led violence prevention and peacebuilding infrastructure in the US to help reduce conflict in our own communities. The US Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement supports local racial healing and calls for a national truth commission. Local peacebuilding is not something that happens in far off war zones. It is a global movement in which we can participate every day.  

What might have happened if the US had responded to the 9/11 attacks by mobilizing the international community to invest in coordinated intelligence sharing, terrorism prevention, and peacebuilding – instead of a global war? What if the international community invested the $14 trillion that violent conflict costs the world each year in supporting locally-led peacebuilding?  What if we spent just 1% of the US military budget – around $800 billion each year – on supporting local people building peace in their own societies?

Locally-led peacebuilding is far more effective, less costly, and more humane than military intervention to address the problems our world faces.  Twenty years on from the attacks of 9/11, it’s time we learn from local peacebuilders and their tireless work in communities around the world – and time we start investing where it matters most.

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