Post Afghanistan exit, US must confront the bitter truths of its global ‘war on terror’

Published on Sep 4 2021


Post-Afghanistan exit, US must confront the bitter truths of its global ‘war on terror’ 
-The messy withdrawal, capped by a bomb attack at Kabul airport that killed dozens, is a sorry end to 20 years of America’s war in Afghanistan
-A commission should be set up to bring to light the reasons for this debacle, as happened following the 9/11 attacks 
writes C Uday Bhaskar for The South China Morning Post

Illustration: Craig Stephens

Illustration: Craig Stephens


In Greek mythology, Sisyphus the king of Ephyra is condemned by the gods to painstakingly push a huge boulder up a hill only to have it roll down once he reached the top. To add to his misfortune, he was doomed to this laborious task for eternity.
The run-up to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks has a tragic Sisyphean tinge to it. On August 26, bomb attacks outside Kabul airport killed more than 100 people, including 13 US military personnel. Many more were injured.
The Islamic State Khorasan (Isis-K) claimed responsibility for this cold-blooded act of murder, even as it was condemned by the Taliban. US President Joe Biden asserted sorrowfully that the perpetrators would be “hunted” down.
Against this bloody backdrop, the final contingent of American troops left Kabul on August 31, as agreed, thereby bringing to a close the US-led global “war on terror” that had begun in October 2001. The Taliban, then in power in Kabul, had given shelter to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the US ousted them after a swift and short military operation. Al-Qaeda was scattered, bin Laden went into hiding and it was presumed by the US – wrongly – that the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban had ended. In one of the biggest policy blunders made by the Bush-led White House at the time, the Pentagon was directed to shift its operations from Afghanistan to Iraq. Baghdad, with president Saddam Hussein in the saddle, was said to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction (it was not) and the Iraqi regime was accused of supporting jihadi terrorism. Then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld misled and goaded the US into a war that should not have been waged.
In the past two decades, the US has expended considerable blood and treasure in the Afghan war. This includes US$2 trillion as a direct cost to American taxpayers (including the Iraq war) and the death toll of 2,461 US military personnel. The overall death toll is more than 170,000, including Afghans and others.Despite this colossal effort, the global “war on terror” that was framed as a massive US-led post-9/11 counterterrorism effort has resulted in a loss of American and Nato credibility and a pro-terror denouement. A triumphant Taliban is back in Kabul; Isis demonstrated its ruthless ability to kill at will in Afghanistan; and an emboldened al-Qaeda congratulated the Taliban for its victory over the US.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus the king of Ephyra is condemned by the gods to painstakingly push a huge boulder up a hill only to have it roll down once he reached the top. To add to his misfortune, he was doomed to this laborious task for eternity.
The run-up to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks has a tragic Sisyphean tinge to it. On August 26, bomb attacks outside Kabul airport killed more than 100 people, including 13 US military personnel. Many more were injured.
The Islamic State Khorasan (Isis-K) claimed responsibility for this cold-blooded act of murder, even as it was condemned by the Taliban. US President Joe Biden asserted sorrowfully that the perpetrators would be “hunted” down.
Against this bloody backdrop, the final contingent of American troops left Kabul on August 31, as agreed, thereby bringing to a close the US-led global “war on terror” that had begun in October 2001. The Taliban, then in power in Kabul, had given shelter to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the US ousted them after a swift and short military operation.

 

Al-Qaeda was scattered, bin Laden went into hiding and it was presumed by the US – wrongly – that the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban had ended. In one of the biggest policy blunders made by the Bush-led White House at the time, the Pentagon was directed to shift its operations from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Baghdad, with president Saddam Hussein in the saddle, was said to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction (it was not) and the Iraqi regime was accused of supporting jihadi terrorism. Then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld misled and goaded the US into a war that should not have been waged.
In the past two decades, the US has expended considerable blood and treasure in the Afghan war. This includes US$2 trillion as a direct cost to American taxpayers (including the Iraq war), and the death toll of 2,461 US military personnel. The overall death toll is more than 170,000, including Afghans and others.

Despite this colossal effort, the global “war on terror” that was framed as a massive US-led post-9/11 counterterrorism effort has resulted in a loss of American and Nato credibility and a pro-terror denouement. A triumphant Taliban is back in Kabul; Isis demonstrated its ruthless ability to kill at will in Afghanistan; and an emboldened al-Qaeda congratulated the Taliban for its victory over the US.

Taliban declares victory from Kabul airport after last US troops leave Afghanistan
The degree to which the Taliban victory in Afghanistan will enable al-Qaeda, Isis, and the other jihadi terrorist groups that share their core ideology, will become evident in the months ahead.
For now, the Taliban is seeking to assuage the concerns of the global community by promising not to allow any terrorist groups to operate from within Afghanistan, but whether they will be able to walk the talk remains moot.
Soon after the last US troops left Kabul on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden, who is under intense attack for the messy exit from Afghanistan, defended his decision. The most significant policy announcement in his speech pertains to the US and its military interventions abroad for ostensibly lofty matters of principle and liberal values. Biden declared: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, the US set up a commission to review the enormity of the al-Qaeda attack, fix domestic accountability and set in place institutional reforms so that such an exigency did not occur again.
After the Kabul exit, there is a case for Biden to institute a similar investigation about the global “war on terror” and the reasons US credibility is dented and diminished among both allies and adversaries.Part of the reason for this debacle is that the US has chosen to create its own strategic bubble since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A Faustian bargain was struck by the White House on Ronald Reagan’s watch, to foster and support the Afghan mujahideen (Kalashnikov in one hand and the Koran in the other) against the USSR. In this furtive plan, Pakistan was accorded a pivotal role.
In the past four decades, Pakistan has honed the strategy of “hunting with the US hound and running with the jihadi hare” and, in the process, has obtained considerable US fiscal and military aid. Projecting itself as a frontline state in the global “war on terror”, the Pakistani military has refined its ability to receive US aid and yet covertly support terrorist groups that have attacked US interests in Afghanistan. This dark secret, that the deep state in Pakistan could not be exposed or penalised, was known to the professionals in US foreign policy, but a make-believe simulacrum was created so as not to affect what was believed to be larger US strategic interests.
Biden, as a US senator of long standing and later vice-president, had a ringside view of this perfidy and would have been aware of the irony that the US targeted Iraq for a fabricated jihadi terror linkage when the real culprit was Pakistan.
The US termed the primary theatre in the global “war on terror” as Af-Pak. It ought to have been Pak-Af.
The war in Afghanistan was congenitally flawed and hopefully, the 20th anniversary will be an opportune moment for the US to pierce the simulacrum and confront some inescapable truths.
 

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