“The very phrase ‘war on terror’ is irrational. It’s like saying ‘war on war’, ‘war on violence’. It’s nonsense.”
– UK Minister Clare Short (1997-2003) in an Al-Jazeera documentary.
September 11, 2001, turned out to be epochal for the United States, and by extension the rest of the world. Whether intended or not, the Osama bin Laden-led Al-Qaeda by targeting the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC had “woken up a sleeping giant”, borrowing from a phrase used earlier during World War II, after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour.
Mad and blinded by fury, the “sleeping giant” unleashed the so-called “War on Terror” led by an ill-advised President George W Bush who appeared to be wanting to do something, anything, to douse the severely hurt ego of the world’s solo superpower, the United States. The rhetoric was lofty. The aim – to wipe out “terrorism” from the face of the Earth – starting with the Al-Qaeda. Twenty years later, as the world comes upon another September 11, it appears that the United States has satiated its thirst for revenge, its anger spent on a futile effort, the latest example of which is Afghanistan.
Instead of decimating the terrorists in Afghanistan and eliminating the Taliban, as Bush had vowed, the US has fled the country. The Taliban is back in power.
The US’s ignominious withdrawal from Kabul has turned the mighty superpower into a figure of ridicule accompanied by a deafening jeer that is bound to reverberate around the world for a long time.
Having spent its bile in the last two decades bullying purportedly ‘evil’ nations across the world, the US government has little stomach to continue the fight; a fight that only made the situation worse – with far more terrorism and destruction than when the US embarked on its mission to “smoke out” terrorists from wherever they were supposedly holed up.
Though terror and terrorist groups existed long before 9/11, the term gained currency in popular lingo only after the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror” – so much so the word has steamrolled all nuances in understanding of violent attacks by groups representing various shades of opposition politics. Insurgency, militancy, separatism, rebellion for example have all been bundled into an unwieldy package called “terrorism”.
The US led an invading force into Afghanistan joined by allies who sympathised with its plight on 9/11. But when it came to the invasion of Iraq, it was part of another, parallel agenda to dislodge the then President Saddam Hussein from power. Using the smokescreen of terrorism, the US undertook a violent expedition in Iraq without the sanction of the UN Security Council.
By doing so, the US took its eyes off Afghanistan and lost the high moral ground it occupied after 9/11. Not just that, the US willy-nilly let go off the heat on the Al-Qaeda leadership which was on the run and in danger of disintegration.
Iraq did not go the way the US planned. No Iraqi strewed flowers on the path of invading US soldiers, as was expected by the Bush administration. Instead it got drawn into a long and debilitating quagmire of violence.
Saddam Hussein and his secular Baath Party were quickly removed from power, and eliminated. By doing this, the US only managed to help proliferate terrorism in post-Saddam Iraq. Scores of personnel in the Iraqi military either joined the Al-Qaeda or formed bands of resistance against US occupation. A country that was stable and had nothing to do with 9/11 fell prey to US’s strategic machinations. The Al-Qaeda initially, and later the Islamic State, filled the space created by Iraqi anger against the unprovoked attack on the country.
The ‘war on terror’, assuming it was genuine, effectively lost its legitimacy the day the Bush administration decided to use it as cover to extend US hegemony in the Middle-East with the purported aim of controlling the global supply of oil, among others. The ruse of terrorism has since 9/11 come in handy for American military adventures. The US has even managed to stave off accountability for what it has done in Iraq under the cover of the “war on terror”.
After the advent of the Barack Obama administration in 2009, the US quietly dropped any reference to the “war on terrorism” in its official communications. In 2013, Obama publicly confirmed the new US position replacing the phrase “war on terrorism” with a more definitive action against specifically targeted hostile groups.
The US may have stopped official reference to the “war on terrorism” but the ball it set rolling after the 9/11 attacks is nowhere near stopping. According to some estimates, the US has spent around $5 trillion in the last 20 years on this so-called war, sent 2.5 million soldiers to fight and has lost around 7,000 personnel.
The number of innocent civilians killed in violence following the invasion of Iraq is around 200,000, according to the NGO, Iraq Body Count. The number more than doubles if war-related deaths are taken into account.
In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the combined deaths since 2001 is around 241,000, states a study by the US-based Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. And, hold your breath, in the two years between 2015-17 the US was in action in no less than 76 countries, according to the university’s Cost of War project.
If there was only the Al-Qaeda in September, 2001, in a span of two decades the American “War on Terror” has spawned the Islamic State and its many branches including Islamic State – Khorasan that recently attacked the Kabul airport. Besides the IS are the various factions of the Al-Qaeda and allied organisations like the Al-Shabab in parts of Africa.
The war on terror has also resulted in paradoxical situations. For example, in Iraq in 2011, the US was fighting the Al-Qaeda while at the same time it was militarily aiding insurgents which were fighting the Basher al-Assad government in neighbouring Syria which included a faction of the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Probably the most ironical of them all was the fact that the US trained the Mujahedin (that included Osama bin Laden and sections of the Al-Qaeda) in the fight against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. According to one report, the bunker in which Osama took shelter during the US attack on Afghanistan was built by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) a few years earlier when they were on the same side.
If at all there has been one overarching consequence of the war on terror, it is that the personal liberties of individuals have been seriously eroded by a country that prides itself on democracy and the rule of law.
In the name of terror, the US and its western allies have resorted to using questionable means to detain suspects. The Guantanamo Bay, for example, is something that the US has not been able to live down. Located in a US enclave in Cuba, the normal rights that a prisoner enjoys in the mainland have not been afforded to Gitmo (short for Guantanamo Bay) inmates. Severe forms of torture and brutality have been recorded in this detention camp.
Several suspects who were picked up in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Arab countries in the initial years of the war on terror were subject to “Extraordinary Rendition”. This meant that detained individuals were taken to secret prisons run by the CIA in third-party countries where they were interrogated and tortured with no questions asked. Some of the countries doing the CIA’s bidding included Afghanistan, Thailand, Lithuania, Poland, Morocco and Romania.
As for the “War on Terror”, though Obama removed it from the official jargon, the battle continues where it is no longer clear what the US is fighting for. “Any kind of meaningful victory seems more distant than ever,” writes Prof Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University.
In the 20 years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, analysts point out that the world has changed in many different ways and right now is facing a serious challenge from the far-right. As BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner writes, the far-right extremism “will likely breathe new life into what appears to be a War without End.”