On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes and launched them as missiles on American targets. About 3,000 people died.
The September 11 attacks were a devastating blow to US national identity, threatening the public’s sense of safety and putting into doubt the very notion of American exceptionalism.
After 9/11, policymakers sprang into action and introduced the Authorisation of Use of Military Force (AUMF), a sweeping piece of legislation that sanctioned the use of US military services against those responsible for the attacks.
IS Al-Qaeda Defeated?
- Loaded with legislative and popular approvals, the Bush administration sent American soldiers to Afghanistan to exact revenge on al-Qaeda and its founder-head Osama bin Laden.
- In October 2001, the month when the American troops landed in Afghanistan, a Pew survey showed 60 per cent adults in the US reposing faith in the government, an approval rating not seen in previous four decades.
- The Taliban were ruling Afghanistan back then. In two months time, American forces deposed them from seat of power. The Taliban have been the protector of al-Qaeda since early 1990s. They had support from Pakistan, especially its military.
- It took the US almost 10 years to seek out Osama bin Laden and kill him in a night raid, not in Afghanistan but Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad in 2011.
- But the US, then under Barack Obama administration, did not pull out immediately. It had a war on terror to fight.
- The war against al-Qaeda or terrorism dominated five US presidential elections. The last two elections were not about fighting the war anymore but to bring back American soldiers home. The narrative was that the US had achieved its objective of destroying al-Qaeda.
- However, given that the return of the US soldiers appeared as another American retreat from war, amidst the return of al-Qaeda’s protector, the Taliban, in Afghanistan.
- And, days after their return, the Taliban gave a clean chit to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in 9/11 case.
Regime change wars:
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. saw a global outpouring of support and sympathy.
- There was a legal and moral argument in favour of its military action against al-Qaeda.
- But the fundamental problem with the war that the U.S. launched was that it wasn’t strategically focused on defeating al-Qaeda.
- Instead, the U.S., driven by the neoconservative hubris of the Bush administration, launched regime change wars to remake the Muslim world.
- President Biden now says the U.S. went to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda. But facts on the ground tell a different story.
- In 2001, the U.S. brought down the Taliban regime and destroyed al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan.
- But instead of going after al-Qaeda networks, the U.S. initiated the next regime change war in Iraq.
- The invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence or the lie that President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, not only diffused the U.S.’s focus in Afghanistan but also created conditions inside Iraq for al-Qaeda, which was forced to retreat from Afghanistan, to establish a new branch.
- Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, rose from the ruins of post-war Iraq to become the deadliest branch of the global jihadist outfit.
- If the Bush administration did not learn from the mistakes of its Afghan invasion, the Obama administration did not learn from the mistakes of the Iraq invasion by President George Bush.
- In 2011, NATO launched another regime change war in Libya. The U.S. believed that with its superior military force, it could topple regimes, reorder political systems and remake the world.
- It did bring down regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but it remained clueless about how to tackle the instability that followed.
Formation of Anti-Americanism among Muslim-majority countries:
- The regime change wars, which helped terrorist outfits proliferate in many countries, also led to the strengthening of both Islamist and Islamophobic politics across the world.
- The repeated attacks on Muslim-majority countries and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of locals, mostly Muslims, in these wars helped strengthen the jihadist narrative that the ‘Christian West’ is launching ‘a crusade’ against Muslims.
- The Islamic State repeatedly referred to all westerners as “crusaders” and broadcast videos of American strikes on social media with the aim of recruiting young Muslims.
- Anti-Americanism emerged as a dominant political theme across Muslim-majority countries, which Islamist hardliners sought to cash in on.
U.S. couldn’t defeat terrorism?
- The bombing by the Islamic State Khorasan Province on August 26 outside Kabul airport that killed about 200 Afghans and 13 Americans at a time when the U.S. was scrambling to evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan was a tragic testimony to everything that went wrong with America’s war on terror.
- When the S. exited Afghanistan, the Taliban, which never fully severed its ties with al-Qaeda, was back in power in Kabul and the country was emerging as the new base of the Islamic State.
- S. President Joe Biden says the war on terror will continue. But the U.S.’s options are limited. It has lost its base in Afghanistan.
- Its alliance with Pakistan, which goes back to the Cold War, is over. Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries refuse to host an American base.
- This will impact intelligence operations. Even if the U.S. wants to carry out a drone strike in Afghanistan (which is not an effective counter-terrorism strategy anyway), it will have to fly the machines from the Gulf, based on intelligence collected from afar.
- If the U.S. couldn’t defeat terrorism after fighting two decades in Afghanistan along with Pakistan, how is it going to fight it in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from bases in the Gulf?
The wars also triggered a massive outflow of refugees from the affected countries to neighbouring nations and the faraway West where the populist far-right, already on the ascent after the 2008 financial crisis, turned it into a political weapon.
During the 2011-15 Libyan and Syrian crises that saw hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers take the perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the far-right harped on Islamophobic rhetoric to drum up support.
The Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in the West during this period further strengthened this narrative.
In the end, the regime change wars, which failed to defeat terrorists, came back to divide and haunt the West in a different form.