Winners and losers of the West’s ‘forever wars’
Today marks 20 years of the 9/11 attacks on the US masterminded by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and a bunch of "ragheads" (as angry racist US soldiers called them) sitting in some cave in Afghanistan, as per the West's dubious official narrative of what transpired on this day. Even though there are still a thousand unanswered questions about what really happened, the events of 9/11 and what followed are undoubtedly the most important world-shaping occurrences of the 21st century.
It significantly changed the West's foreign policy (particularly the US) and marked the start of the War on Terror—an odd turn really, since al-Qaeda was of its own making. Hillary Clinton, for example, when she was the US secretary of state, once asked during her testimony to Congress why the US was in Afghanistan fighting the same people that they once funded to fight the Soviet Union—namely the Mujahideen.
The first country the West invaded in its War on Terror was Afghanistan. Two long decades later, it has finally ended its occupation of that country, with mixed results, even according to its most ardent supporters and unapologetic war-hawks—including politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, experts and media personalities across the partisan line.
According to the latest report by Brown University's "Costs of War" Project, the US-led war on terror has killed nearly one million people globally and cost more than USD 8 trillion. Even though the death toll in the report pales in comparison to another estimate from 2015 done by the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility—which said more than one million people were killed both indirectly and directly in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone, never mind other places like Libya, Syria, etc—it is still significant.
Meanwhile, the economic costs tallied by the "Costs of War" report include USD 2.3 trillion spent by the US government on military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, USD 2.1 trillion in Iraq and Syria, and USD 355 billion in Somalia and other regions of Africa, with an additional USD 1.1 trillion spent on domestic security measures in the US since 2001, bringing direct expenditures from the war on terror at home and abroad to an astronomical USD 5.8 trillion. Moreover, according to an earlier report by the same group, the wars the US government has fought since 9/11 have forced at least 37 million people—perhaps as many as 59 million—to flee their homes. In Afghanistan and Iraq alone, the total number of displaced people reached 14.5 million. Alongside that, the report included 3.7 million Pakistanis, 1.7 million Filipinos, 4.2 million Somalis, 4.4 million Yemenis, 1.2 million Libyans and 7.1 million Syrians who were displaced.
So, what did the US, the people living in these regions, and the world get in return?
Well, the US spent trillions of dollars of its own taxpayers' income, became a surveillance state—as exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden—and surrendered the constitutional rights of its own citizens. Also, in the so-called pursuit of "exporting democracy," it sacrificed its own democratic ideals, such as granting US presidents the power to go to war without congressional approval. US soldiers, along with soldiers of other NATO countries, committed all sorts of atrocities worthy of being called war crimes, including torture—as exposed by CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. Its troops killed hundreds of thousands of people in the countries they occupied, such as Afghanistan and Iraq—as exposed by documents published by WikiLeaks in their "Afghan War Diary" and "Iraq War Logs"—and then lied about it.
According to a 2011 poll, six in 10 Americans believed that the US had weakened its economy by overspending in its responses to the 9/11 attacks. And two out of every three Americans perceived that since 9/11, US power and influence in the world declined.
The people in these regions, needless to say, suffered tremendously. Thousands of people died and millions were injured. Those who made it out alive couldn't possibly do so without suffering some sort of major trauma.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has now once again returned to power and are better armed, thanks to US-made weapons. In Iraq, one poll from 2016 found that more than 90 percent of young people considered the US an enemy of their country. Peoples' sentiment was found to be similar in other countries, and they believed that the West had destabilised Syria, Somalia and Libya.
Islamic extremism has only increased and spread out all across the world, mainly as a reactionary expression of anger against the violent conduct of the West. The Islamic State, which was largely created by the US invasion of Iraq, at one point controlled vast swaths of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya, only to be pushed back by the West's seemingly sworn enemies such as the Assad government in Syria, Iran and Russia. Evidence has even come out showing that the West actually funded some of these radical elements for geopolitical gains against its rivals.
The destabilisation of countries—particularly in the Middle East—has led to mass migrations of people, and the European migrant crisis that we witnessed a few years ago was a direct result of the West's interventionist policy. These migrations, in turn, have resulted in increased tensions between different cultures, people, and religions, and have possibly supplied even more fuel for future fires.
So, from that perspective, has the War on Terror and Western interventionism been a failure? Well, it depends on your definition of success and failure.
Following the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a 2011 video clip of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange went viral. In it, the now incarcerated journalist—who, by the way, is yet to be convicted of any crime, but has published evidence that could possibly implicate Western leaders of being responsible for sanctioning war crimes—said that the US goal in Afghanistan is not to completely subjugate the country. "The goal is to use Afghanistan to wash money out of the tax bases of the US and Europe through Afghanistan and back into the hands of a transnational security elite. The goal is an endless war, not a successful war."
From that perspective, the War on Terror has been a success. According to The Intercept, over the past 20 years, returns on stocks of the five biggest US defence contractors—Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics—outperformed the overall stock market by 58 percent. "A USD 10,000 investment in stock evenly split across those five companies on the day in 2001 that then President George W Bush signed the authorisation preceding the US invasion would be worth USD 97,295 this week," The Intercept reported on August 21. These numbers, according to journalist Jon Schwarz, "suggest that it is incorrect to conclude that the Taliban's immediate takeover of Afghanistan upon the US's departure means that the Afghanistan War was a failure."
"On the contrary, from the perspective of some of the most powerful people in the US, it may have been an extraordinary success. Notably, the boards of directors of all five defence contractors include retired top-level military officers," he says.
For everyone else, however, the War on Terror has been a mostly painful and costly disaster, proving the words of Major General Smedley Butler—one of the most decorated soldiers in all US history—true: "War is a racket."
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal