The effect of the havoc that was wrought on this September day sixteen years ago still reverberates in most parts of the globe. The new world order that George Bush wanted to create, following the attack on a symbol of US might—a state of international politics where only the US writ would run, and no opposition to its power would be tolerated—had created disorder only.
The first act of disorder was the unilateral action of the US in Afghanistan as the first theatre of his global war on terror, initiated through the saturated carpet bombing of a people. The UN became inconsequential; the US didn't bother about a UN mandate because it arrogated to itself the right to “behave multilaterally when we can, and unilaterally when we must,” exploiting the sentiments created by the painful pictures of the Twin Tower destruction. And the rest of the world acquiesced without a word of protest. The choice was hard—“either you are with us, or with the terrorists.” And those who knew better did not want to be against the mightiest power in the world. The invasion of Iraq had been termed illegal by no less a person than the UN Secretary-General.
The question that agitates one's mind is whether the objectives for which the two wars were initiated have been met. It would be only fair to say that for the US, a good part of its hidden agenda has been completed. The biggest thorn in the US flesh and indeed the biggest threat to the US proxy in the Middle East, Israel, has been successfully uprooted. Saddam is gone, and with him has gone the only Arab leader who was in any position to challenge US policy in the Middle East. There is little chance of his Sunni successors, if there is any left at all, of retaking the controls of Baghdad.
In Afghanistan the US has continued to retain its presence without getting into the military imbroglio like the erstwhile USSR forcing it to beat a hasty retreat. But neither the Taliban nor the al-Qaeda has been neutralised. The prospect appears more dangerous with the IS in Afghanistan seeking a space there.
However, the US' longest war in its history is not about to end soon. The mission which Bush so gleefully declared “accomplished” on an aircraft carrier in the US naval base in San Diego in May 2003 is far from being accomplished. The US must have realised that the stated aim—the ostensible goal of handing freedom to the two countries—is easier spoken than achieved. It must have “relearnt” that winning a battlefield engagement is not the same as winning a war.
The US, one hopes, has learnt too that while one can start a war, it is not entirely within one's power to draw it to a conclusion. We have said before, there are so many variables and imponderables in a conflict—particularly the one which is motivated by all the wrong reasons, and whose rationale is based on deceit—ending the war becomes all nigh impossible without effecting an honourable retreat.
Afghanistan is still in turmoil, and nationhood is a chimera. Iraq is trying desperately to see that the country is not broken up into three segments along ethnic lines.
But it would be misleading to equate the situations in Iraq with that of Afghanistan. If there were some links of Afghanistan with 9/11, only because bin Laden was holed up in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains there (what about Saudi Arabia in that case, to which 15 of the 19 hijackers belonged?), the methods and means of addressing the problem tempt us to ask once again as to which is worse: the disease or the antidote.
Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 at all. No wonder the US intelligence faked the evidence. But the world has come to know since then that the plan to attack Iraq far predated 9/11. And it is no wonder that according to a research study carried out in the US, as many as one hundred and sixty rationales were invented by the Bush administration to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Actually it was Iraq and not Afghanistan that was the main US target.
The reason that the US was not too eager to commit too many troops to Afghanistan, according to an expert, was because of its anticipated operations in Iraq, which came about less than seventeen months after Afghanistan, in March 2003. The consequence of the policy in Afghanistan that was motivated by the need to avoid a Russia-like situation, save forces for Iraq and prove that air power alone can deliver results, led to very little control of territory. In effect the president of Afghanistan “remains nothing more than the mayor of Kabul.”
The report card on the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) looks very bleak. It has fomented terrorism in places where there was none before US invasions of the two countries. Iraq in particular was a “cause célèbre” that attracted many Islamic radicals from other parts of the world to gravitate towards Iraq. It has invigorated these elements in places where they had remained dormant till then. While it is true that in the last 16 years there have been no large-scale terror attacks in mainland USA, there were many small-scale lone wolf attacks from homegrown radicals in the US.
GWOT has witnessed the emergence of the IS which had so far been in control of a large part of real estate in Iraq and Syria, which happily is shrinking in both countries, but its ability to influence the hearts and minds of young Muslims is not.
US military analysts aver that the so-called “victory in Afghanistan was not, in the long run, a victory at all.” In fact the US is getting increasingly embroiled; instead of thinning out of Afghanistan, it is investing 4,000 more troops. As for Iraq, according to another expert, “none of the goals that Bush and Blair had set for themselves in Iraq—democracy, security, and a stable pro-Western regime—has been met or will be met. The day Bush decided to have an occupation was the day he ensured defeat.”
For South Asia, GWOT has brought the war at its doorstep from where it was centred so long—the Middle East. The double standards of the West have helped the extremist elements, IS in particular, to trigger in young impressionable Muslim youths the urge to establish a world order that would be dominated by the Caliphate, as outlandish as it may sound. And Europe has been the biggest recruiting ground for the IS.
So after more than a decade of the war on terror we repeat the same question that we have been asking since the US launched its campaign against terror: Are we better off than before? I shall not venture an answer.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.