Same mistakes are being made 20 years after 9/11
Two decades on from the most lethal attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor, the events of the past few weeks in Afghanistan have given the 20th anniversary of 9/11 a much sharper political edge. The suicide strike at Kabul airport in August will only escalate fears that Al-Qaeda and Daesh stand to profit. Many will ask whether the US, and indeed the world, is safer for all these wars.
Fear of mass terror attacks still affects populations across the globe. We have learned to live with intrusive security searches at airports and elsewhere. Intelligence sharing has improved, but is still far from perfect. The reality is that everyone knows an attack is possible at any time.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the US political system was broadly united and the country had the backing of its allies. Can we argue the same now as the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered a full-scale blame game in Washington and left US allies scratching their heads over the reliability of their partnership with the US?
A potent argument is that the Bush administration failed from Day 1 by designating this as a global war on terrorism. It should have been set up as a criminal investigation, a police issue, not a military onslaught. It gave extremists far too much publicity and airtime. Treating the militants as dangerous criminals to be locked up for life would have been preferable to setting them up as powerful enemies to be defeated. Sending the world’s most powerful military machine into Afghanistan simply gave them a status they never deserved. Osama bin Laden enhanced his standing among his ilk merely by evading the Americans for so long.
Moreover, each chapter of the US global war on terror had a huge impact on civilians. More than 117,000 Afghans have been killed over the past 20 years. Do Afghans feel safer? The anti-Daesh coalition admits to more than 1,000 civilian lives lost in Syria and Iraq during seven years of operations, but other research indicates the numbers are much higher.
The US would have fared better by taking the moral high ground and showing true leadership instead of lowering standards. Setting up the Guantanamo Bay detention center ignored the rule of law, as did extraordinary rendition, while the abuses at Abu Ghraib and various clandestine CIA black sites where torture was widely used only diminished Washington in the world’s eyes.
Placing Iraq within the framework of the global war on terror was another major error. It was dishonest, for starters, as there was no credible link to Al-Qaeda in 2003. But the Anglo-American occupation created the perfect breeding ground for the terror outfit to set up shop.
The ignoble 2021 exit from Afghanistan means that such groups, as well as the Taliban, are proclaiming a great victory, with mere survival enough to raise their standing. Afghans endured Operation Enduring Freedom for 20 years but had only brief glimpses of that freedom.
How have the extremist groups fared? Will they be boosted by the events in Afghanistan and the blow to US standing? Groups such as Al-Shabab celebrated. It had echoes of France’s withdrawal from the Sahel, which was announced in June. US combat forces will also be leaving Iraq at the end of the year. Can governments in these regions rely on foreign backers, such as the US? In Somalia, the authorities have far less to protect themselves against the radical threat than the Afghan government had at its disposal. Attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram have killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more within and across national borders in the Sahel and West Africa. Mali is a vast security nightmare.
A 2018 study claimed that, after a war that cost more than $7 trillion, there could now be as many as four times as many terrorists as there were in 2001. The number of such militants could be somewhere between 100,000 and 230,000, up from around 30,000 to 60,000 in 2001. Yet doubts exist over this figure, as many of those counted as Islamist were locally based and lacking global ambition, such as the Taliban. The trouble is that any extremist group has plenty of locations to set up shop in remote, conflict-ridden territory where local governance is weak. Breeding grounds are not in short supply and neither are grievances, both legitimate and perceived. Whatever the true figure, it remains substantial.
Islamist extremists remain a powerful force that is all the stronger for being fragmented into differing franchises across Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. They have adapted, using social media to great effect, as Daesh demonstrated. They have also successfully adopted many local causes. They have countered the US decapitation strategy, which on paper looks impressive. Many famed terrorist leaders, including Bin Laden, have met their fate in a US military operation. Nevertheless, Al-Qaeda continues. The killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the group’s chief in Iraq, led in part to the genesis of Daesh. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s demise as head of Daesh will not see the disintegration of the group. Drone strikes often mean civilian casualties, a considerable recruitment tool for such groups.
Treating the militants as dangerous criminals to be locked up for life would have been preferable to setting them up as powerful enemies to be defeated.
Defeating global terror groups was never going to be an easy task and could never be achieved by a militarily focused strategy. However, neglecting to address the underlying issues has been the greatest failing of the past two decades. Western-led attempts at nation-building did not work in Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan and, more often than not, were undermined by simultaneous military operations. Standards of governance sank and corruption in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan was never addressed.
A huge part of this failure was an inability to understand these regions of the world. Policymakers typically neither understood the environment in which they were operating nor the radical groups they were trying to defeat. Islamophobia remains rampant. The starkest example is the enduring way in which so many commentators and politicians in the West fail to understand that the greatest victims of these extremists are not European or American but Muslims from those regions where these groups are based. The horrific bombing attacks in Europe, for example, are tiny in scale compared with those endured by Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans.
Until this startling gap in knowledge and attitude is addressed, one fears that the US — and those allies it can still get to work with it — will continue to encounter less-than-perfect results. The lessons were there to be learned even before 9/11 but, 20 years on, the same mistakes are being made in an ever bloodier time loop.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech