The chronicle of US failure in Afghanistan and Iraq

US was so sure of its victory in the war on terror waged it paid little heed to any guidance or reference from history


Durdana Najam September 02, 2021
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @durdananajam

As Winston Churchill had long ago observed: “However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into consideration.” The US was so sure of its victory in the war on terror waged against Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, that it paid little heed to any guidance or reference from history. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was convinced that that “the US military’s unrivalled technological mastery was unstoppable against all foes — whether conventional or irregular.” But, unfortunately, it was not to be. Today twenty years down the road, with trillions of dollars and millions of lives lost, the ever-nagging question is still being asked: Has the war on terrorism ended with the departure of the US from Afghanistan?

Within two years of its attack on 9/11, al-Qaeda had locked the US in two wars in two different regions — with all the nasty consequences. As Rumsfeld lamented in December 2002: “We know that we’re killing a lot, capturing a lot, collecting arms. We just don’t know yet whether that’s the same as winning.” Two decades later, the US has left Afghanistan wondering whether it was even worth fighting?

On the eve of US failure in the Vietnam War in 1969, Henry Kissinger explained America’s failure to win victory as: “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

Jaish ul-Adl, in a series of articles posted on the Internet titled “In the Shadow of the Lances”, used to give practical guidance to potential foreign fighters that al-Qaeda was recruiting to fight in Iraq. The articles explained the merits of employing guerrilla warfare against the US and coalition forces. Al-Neda, al-Qaeda’s main website at that time, used to boast the advantages of using guerrilla warfare to target the occupying forces. Under the title “Guerrilla Warfare Is the most Powerful Weapon Muslims have, and It is The Best Method to Continue the Conflict with the Crusader Enemy” these treatises explained how:

“This is the method that expelled the direct Crusader colonialism from most of the Muslim lands, with Algeria the most well known ... The successful attempts of dealing defeat to invaders using guerrilla warfare were many, and we will not expound on them. However, these attempts have proven that the most effective method for the materially weak against the strong is guerrilla warfare.”

In 2007, US Army Specialist Salvatore Giunta, who had the distinction of becoming a living recipient of the US Medal of Honor for fighting a bloody war in Afghanistan’s Korengal River Valley, was compelled to say: “The richest, most-trained army got beat by dudes in manjammies and AKs.”

Down the road, Secretary Defence Robert Gates would caution: “We can expect that asymmetric warfare will be the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behaviour — of friends, adversaries and most importantly, the people in between.”

America’s invasion of Iraq has also been a failure foretold. Secretary of State Colin Powell had warned President Bush in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.” This was Powell’s now-famous “Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.”

Richard A Clarke, President George W Bush’s counterterrorism advisor, wrote in Against All Enemies, “We did not have to go after Iraq after September 11.” To Clarke’s understanding, “Having been attacked by al-Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq in response would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.”

Not only did al-Qaeda and its affiliates defeat the US dream of capturing Afghanistan and Iraq based on its supersonic technology, but they also proved saner in outmanoeuvring the US in the information technology and communication field. Gates complained in 2007 that “it is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America” and again a year later that “[w]e’re being out-communicated by a guy in a cave.” American strategist Sean McFate had also persuasively argued, “The West needs to update its information-warfare game. Until it does, it will continue to get outplayed by its enemies that wage war in the information space, and that’s most everyone.”

As for the question, whether the war on terrorism is over with the departure of the US from Afghanistan, the answer perhaps lies in a Churchill’s quote that: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2021.

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