Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America is at an inflection point. The future course of US policies will depend on what lessons — if any — it has learnt from its disastrous war on terror. While President Biden has declared an end to this ‘forever war’, he has also asserted that the US will continue its arrogant self-proclaimed mission to ‘promote freedom and democracy’ around the world. This would be a recipe for increasing international confrontation, especially with China and Russia. Meanwhile, the transnational terrorist threat has increased rather than being diminished by the American war on terror.
The 9/11 attacks, causing nearly 3,000 American casualties, triggered justified outrage and desire for vengeance. The world also rallied in support of the US. But Americans squandered this goodwill by refusing to address the real motive behind the terrorist attacks which was America’s unconditional support for Israeli repression of the Arabs. Instead, the false claim that “they hate us for our freedoms” was touted to justify the forever war. But this misbegotten campaign quickly morphed from destroying terrorist networks to enforce regime change and nation building on the grounds that democracy in America depends on promoting democracy abroad. Not just Republican Neo-Cons but also Democratic liberal interventionists took this messianic zeal beyond Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya and Syria as a deliberate policy of pre-emptive unilateral expansion. Use of massive firepower — employing daisy-cutters, depleted uranium munitions, cruise missiles and drones — accompanied by torture, detentions and renditions at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib bases caused over 900,000 deaths at a cost of over 6 trillion dollars, according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project. Majority of the casualties were non-combatants, including women and children.
Instead of winning hearts and minds of those being ‘liberated’, such indiscriminate ‘shock and awe’ tactics swelled the ranks of the Taliban and the terrorist organisations. Despite Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011, his al-Qaeda survived, expanding beyond Afghanistan. Even more dangerous organisations like ISIS/Daesh have spread from Iraq to 17 other countries. Groups such as the TTP, ETIM and others aligned with ISIS have also emerged. Most significantly, the Taliban are back in power. For many observers, this American debacle is ultimately a victory for bin Laden.
Even so, the majority of Americans are in denial. The incestuous environment of group-think among American leaders, officials, academics and media has led to a blame game rather than genuine introspection. The collective American failure is being blamed on convenient scapegoats. The favourite bogeyman is Pakistan, accused of double dealing and betrayal, even though Pakistan’s advice at every crucial stage was repeatedly spurned.
For instance, after 9/11, Pakistan suggested targeted counterterrorism operations instead of an invasion of Afghanistan and advised against alienating the majority Pushtoon population and inclusion of moderate Taliban in the interim government, while stressing the need to differentiate between the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists, since the latter could be eliminated but the former could not. Later, Pakistan argued that neither a military victory nor nation-building could be achieved and the only solution was a dialogue with the Taliban for an honourable exit. Even when a dialogue finally started, Pakistan’s advice for a responsible and orderly American withdrawal, by ensuring a peaceful Afghan transition, was rejected. The result was the humiliating exodus from Kabul.
This humiliation underscores the current American animosity towards the Taliban government. Afghan reserves worth 9.3 billion dollars in the US have been frozen. Desperately needed assistance — from the US and other western countries as well as the IMF and the World Bank — has been withheld. This threatens a collapse of the Afghan economy, already strained by the growing humanitarian crisis. Internal resistance to the Taliban is also being stoked, especially by India. Meanwhile, demands for an ‘inclusive’ government, respect for human rights and combating terrorism are being made as the price for recognition and assistance. But none of this would be possible if the Taliban are unable to stabilise their country. The alternative is spread of terrorism, increased drug trafficking, refugee influx and regional instability, affecting the US itself.
American anger towards Pakistan is clear from the recent hearing in Congress with repeated accusations of Pakistan harbouring and supporting the Taliban. Various punitive measures are being mentioned from denial of assistance to imposition of sanctions. But, over the long term, this would prove counter-productive since Washington will continue to need Islamabad’s cooperation to deal with terrorism and ensure regional security.
At the global level, the defeat in Afghanistan is being projected as the retreat of American power and the end of American uni-polarity. The counter argument is that the US will rebound as it did after its defeat in Vietnam. Any realistic assessment must acknowledge that America remains the world’s most powerful country even though it now needs to contend with a multipolar world including China and Russia. Still, unlike after the Vietnam war, the US will not be able to play the ‘China card’ as it did against the Soviet Union since now China and Russia are strategic partners aligned against the US. But, instead of recognising the need for cooperating with China and Russia for a stable international order, successive American administrations since President Bush have pursued a zero-sum approach to maintain American global supremacy. Biden is committed to the same objective — to contain and confront both adversaries and promote a global ‘rules based order’. This is actually doublespeak for seeking continued American hegemony, motivated by sanctimonious arrogance.
It is this hubris that fundamentally contributed to America’s defeat in Afghanistan. Now it threatens to unleash a global geopolitical confrontation with China and Russia, including in Afghanistan and the South Asian region. The vacuum created by America’s departure is bound to be filled by its rivals. The US can avert this outcome by cooperating with China and Russia. But, it is unlikely that the continuing arrogance of the Americans will allow them to learn from the bitter lessons of the past 20 years.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2021.
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