There is something eerie about these 10-year cycles. The mythology of dry and wet decades goes back to biblical times. Closer in time and space, civilian and military rulers have changed rounds every 10 or so years in Pakistan. When the Soviet Union fell apart in the autumn of 1991, the United States rightly claimed that the world was now unipolar and declared an ‘American Century’. Precisely in 10 years, a nearly unknown entity called al Qaeda had the nerve to take on the ‘sole surviving superpower’. A decade later, with many of us trying to figure out how this upstart has fared, I suspect that it did not do too badly. No wonder that the Arabs, enamoured by astrology, invented the figure of 10.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the US seized the opportunity to test the emerging new order. The UN Security Council (UNSC) was asked to sanction the use of force to evict the Iraqi forces. It readily obliged — with the Soviet Union (in death throes) and China, both of whom might have demurred in the bygone bipolar era, meekly falling in line. Having vacated the occupation and proven who was now the big boss, the US ignored the world body when imposing sanctions or no-fly-zones over Iraq.
Europe, too, remained pathetically dependent on American leadership, even when putting out fires in its backyard. It needed the Big Brother, who indeed did not need the UNSC, to come bomb the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. But then, no worldly power is omnipotent. Defiant powers like Cuba and Iran also survived, India and Pakistan got away with their nuclear impertinence and China continued its long march towards one day posing a serious challenge to American hegemony.
Post-9/11, the Security Council was once again needed to permit (an open-ended!) use of force to bring the perpetrators of this monstrosity to book, and was once again ignored thereafter. It did grant ex post facto sanction when the US ordered its Nato underlings to the Afghan front, but when it showed reluctance to rubber-stamp the invasion of Iraq, the US and its poodles went charging regardless. The difference this time around is that this unrelenting approach has cost the wounded superpower dearly.
According to conventional wisdom, an insurgency or a resistance wins merely by not losing. The US has thus lost both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. (Those not impressed by military bywords may consult former CIA and MI5 big guns.) And there is little chance that it can come out, especially from Afghanistan, in good shape. It may not care much for finer things like ‘world opinion’; however, the deficit is fast becoming critical. The two misadventures alone may not have gotten the US in its current financial woes; but they still cost a few trillion dollars. The only consolation it can savour is that there was precious little it could do to avert the great fall.
If the aim was to round up the al Qaeda top leadership, a little more persuasion with the Taliban or use of covert means with the war option held in reserve could have paid more dividends. But the thought never crossed an American mind. A people raging mad at the violation of their safe sanctuary could only find solace in a swift and spectacular response: why else did we create this expensive war machine? The problem is that once created, this infernal machine acquires a life of its own.
Capturing Kabul or securing big cities in Afghanistan was never a big deal for the invading armies (what happens later is another matter). That the Taliban regime could be toppled in short order was therefore no surprise. What must have surprised or dismayed many of us was the extension of war to Iraq. Considering, however, that all empires, when intoxicated by power, overextend and meet the fate of their predecessors, this too had to happen. If it came too soon in the present case, the acceleration of the process may have been a joint venture.
Osama bin Laden’s claim that he would exhaust America by making it run in circles, if true, could not have been accomplished without some inside help from those who benefit from wars. Their greed may be one reason that the US, despite facing default, is sinking billions of dollars to train the Afghan Army for a role that it never has and never can fulfil, or is fortifying military bases that are the main obstacle for a political settlement! The predilection of power to exhaust all options before doing the right thing (it was Churchill who said that) has — inevitably again — led the US to dig deeper in the Afghan hole, and to a state of war (low-intensity, but still a war) with what was once fatuously called its frontline ally — Pakistan.
But then, that too was on the cards with both sides pursuing divergent objectives and different strategies. It doesn’t really matter what America’s initial, subsequent, or evolving interests were, they could not be reconciled with those of Pakistan. Wars in Afghanistan inevitability spill over the Durand Line: for demographic, topographic, perhaps also historic reasons. Pakistan, therefore, pleaded non-use of force, but then succumbed to using some of its own by starting a military operation in South Waziristan, again when better choices were available. It is now desperately resisting any further use and, along with Kabul, is thus the perfect scapegoat for Washington’s inability to finish the job.
And what about al Qaeda that started it all? It is possible that it no longer exists as a coherent entity but it is still useful. The US can rationalise its military presence in the region since its nemesis was still alive and kicking in Pakistan. Any militant group can claim to be its affiliate and strike terror in the hearts of its enemies. Regimes like Qaddafi’s can staple this brand on their adversaries to justify repression. Its remnants can be moved to Yemen or Somalia to send us all chasing shadows. That makes it another superpower, even if of a different kind: nebulous or perceived; but a superpower all the same. That also serves a purpose. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the US can declare victory: its rivals could not do another 9/11.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2011.
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