On the 18th anniversary of 9/11 attacks, America's war on terror is far from over
Despite massive loss of money and manpower ever since its launched the war on terror, the US hasn't achieved many of its objectives
It’s yet another anniversary of the devastating 9/11 attacks that marked the beginning of a new era in international politics. In the early morning of September 11, 2001, 19 militants from the Islamic militant outfit Al Qaeda hijacked four passenger planes and turned them into guided missiles to conduct a series of attacks on the American mainland.
Two of those planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, razing them to the ground. The third plane left some impact on the Pentagon outside Washington DC, while the fourth fell short of its target by crashing in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was suspected that the fourth was headed for the White House, US Capitol or the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Almost 3,000 lives were lost as a result of the dastardly attacks while several thousand people were injured. The 9/11 attacks marked a watershed moment in the history of international relations as the US retaliated with its massive strategy of ‘Global War of Terrorism’ under the presidency of George W Bush. America has seen three presidencies since then, and in some form or other, the same counter-terror strategy has prevailed.
Though Bush’s war on terror (the word ‘global’ became conspicuous by its absence later) became controversial because of the economic, social and political ramifications, it was an instant hit at the time of its launch. The 9/11 attacks had granted a justification to wage a war on “humanitarian grounds” and the Washington-led invasion and attacks elsewhere were seen as a logical conclusion of the 2001 attacks -- the biggest ever on the American soil.
War on terror has only got bigger
But as the days went by, it became increasingly clear that the doctrine of ‘war on terror’ itself was not above suspicion. It became a global phenomenon soon, starting with the US’s invasion of Afghanistan less than a month after the attacks. The Americans were aided by troops from Britain, Canada, Germany, France and Australia and while it all started in the form of retaliation against the Al Qaeda, based in the impoverished land of Afghanistan, the US today finds itself engaged on the soil of 80 countries in as many as six continents as part of its war on terror.
While the world focuses on a few countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya where the US-led initiative to defeat terror led to messy consequences, there are a whole lot of them that mostly go unnoticed.
Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, along with some of her colleagues and the Smithsonian magazine conducted a thorough study to find out that contrary to what many Americans believe today, Washington’s war on terror is actually spreading further and has reached more than 40 percent of countries worldwide.
In an article she penned for commondreams.com, Savell wrote: “Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss—conservatively estimated—of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.”
It’s not that the US has only made use of its military might to conduct the war on terror. Besides physical assault by its armed forces, the State Department has spent several hundred billions since 2001 training anti-terror forces in many countries and spreading education to counter the menace.
While countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have seen more extreme anti-terror measures undertaken by the US in the forms of keeping military bases and carrying out air and drone strikes, more friendly ones like India have been subjected to softer influence in terms of military exercises and training/assistance.
Progress report from 4 countries
Now, the question that arises is: How far has the US’s war on terror been successful in the nearly two decades since its inception? With the amount of money and manpower that has been spent, it is not out of place to ask whether the war on terror was worth it? For conflicts and killings in an era of terror network integration have not decreased and the current American leadership has exhibited signs of fatigue in war theatres like Afghanistan and Syria.
To understand how successful the US’s war on terror has been, here is an account of the political realities that exist in some of the countries that Washington entered to give peace and democracy a chance.
AFGHANISTAN: It is not new knowledge that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, were the creations of none other than the US. It was because of the strategic necessity of fighting the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the Cold War that Washington created and aided a local force to fight its war against the Soviets. Pakistan and China were the other allies in this conflict. But after the dynamics of world politics changed with the conclusion of the Cold War, Osama and the US were no longer on the same page. The US was even instrumental behind the Taliban’s coming to power a few years after the end of the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah.
In a departure from its Afghanistan strategy during the Cold War days, Washington-led western forces invaded the poor nation in October 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks and with the help of local anti-Taliban outfits, pushed the militants back. But the western forces faltered in doing what was a top priority then: encourage Afghanistan’s nation-building. The idea of importing democracy didn’t eventually work out despite early hopes and the failures of two successive elected governments -- of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani -- left the US with no option but to talk with the Taliban. But that initiative too has hit a wall as violence has escalated across the country and with too many empowered quarters in the country and President Trump looking for an exit route, nobody is sure whether the war on terror has indeed made any difference in Afghanistan.
IRAQ: President Bush Junior had once said that the war in Iraq is a part of the war on terror. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq after complaining that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even after such weapons were not found and several were killed in the war, Bush said that Iraq had the capacity to build such weapons. He insisted that the terrorists were against allowing Iraq’s democracy to grow stronger. But even as the Republican leader pinned hope on the war on terror and Iraq too witnessed an initiative to install democracy, the country found itself engulfed by the Islamic State (IS). One of the biggest reasons for the IS’s rise has been the aftereffects of the US intervention of the early 2000s.
The interventions only left the local system in a mess, thus allowing dangerous disruptive forces in the forms of sectarianism, dogmatism and political backlash and chaos to take the centrestage. Although the IS has been defeated militarily, it hasn’t vanished but looking for bases elsewhere like in Afghanistan. Iraq, too, continues to face political, tribal and sectarian conflicts that are fueling extremism and regional rivalries.
PAKISTAN: An old ally of the US, Pakistan found itself at the receiving end after 9/11. Islamabad had been a part of the anti-Soviet axis of the Cold War era and was in trouble once that axis broke down. The US pressured Pakistani rulers to take a strong stand against the Afghanistan-based extremists but because of its own interests, Islamabad found it challenging. Pakistan has witnessed a rare democractic continuity for over a decade now but even its elected rulers have failed to bring a change in its Afghanistan policy because of realpolitik.
The US’s relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated under the last three presidencies while it has improved with Pakistan’s arch-rival India. Islamabad relies on Beijing as a countermeasure to Washington’s pressure. But that is more about its own survival and little about reining in terrorists. The American war on terror hasn’t succeeded at least in Pakistan even after its forces hunted down Laden in that country in 2011.
LIBYA: Libya is another country which has suffered the impact of the US’s war on terror. The country’s slain dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, once had a chequered relationship with Washington. Once a strong opponent of the West, Gaddafi’s regime came under sanctions that saw Tripoli going for positive changes like shutting down terror camps. While many wondered whether Gaddafi had changed, there are experts who said that to bring changes in a state’s behaviour, it is not necessary to effect a regime change.
Gaddafi was the one who had sympathised with the US during the 9/11 attacks but he was still no hero in the eyes of the Americans because of the Lockerbie bombing of 1988. He was eventually eliminated in 2011 and the US considered it a big foreign policy success though the US government found itself under attack in Benghazi on the 11th anniversy of the 9/11 atacks, with the US ambassador to Libya even getting killed. Obama's Libya policy was seen as a failure by many since the North African country could not develop into a democracy despite anti-terror initiatives.
This year, President Trump himself made a mockery of the US’s policy towards Libya further by reaching out to Khalifa Hifter, a self-declared autocrat and leader of the Libyan National Army that launched an attack on Tripoli, the seat of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord. And Trump this did in the wake of his own administration’s officials condemning Hifter’s act. Caught in a similar situation like that in Afghanistan, Libya’s UN-backed government struggles to control territories that are dominated by rival factions and the lack of cohesion provides enough opportunity for terrorist groups to thrive, putting the entire region in turmoil.