ANALYSIS - Besieged while trying to contain: US opened Pandora’s Box by invading Afghanistan
When UN is nearly defunct and NATO has chosen to exit stage, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries may now develop solution to prevent Afghanistan from becoming black hole that exports terror, migration to its neighbors, without involving US
The writer is a seasoned journalist who writes analyses on Turkish foreign policy.
If there is one thing that the geopolitical struggle that intensified at the global level with the First World War has taught us over the past century, it is that what the policies implemented by the superpowers of their time aim to achieve and what they actually achieve can differ dramatically. The policies implemented by the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the fact that Afghanistan was ultimately left to the Taliban at the end of a 20-year struggle, demonstrated once again that “unpredictable outcomes” are unavoidable in the geopolitical arena.
The attacks on US territory on 9/11, like the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, reminded the US administration that distance was not an adequate guarantor of security. And the White House’s first thought was that “the only option available to a country hit by a successful surprise attack would be to strike back immediately,” as they did against Japan in 1941. Most likely, no one in the US administration felt compelled to investigate the cause-and-effect relationships that led to September 11, 2001. When the events that brought Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden to the forefront are examined chronologically, we see that they were not limited to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
How did things come to this?
We can arrive at the chain of intertwined consequences that prepared the ground for the birth of Al-Qaeda by listing the central components of this process: the response of the Islamic world to colonial imperialism, the rivalry between Pakistan and India since their independence, the exaggerated predictions of the US administration about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the provoking of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against the Iranian Revolution, the US’s desire to turn Afghanistan into the “Vietnam of Moscow” with the containment policy it launched against the USSR using Saudi Arabian petrodollars, the US setting foot in Saudi Arabia with the coalition it gathered against the invasion of Iraq, and the efforts of the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan (who were left to idly wander around with the end of the Soviet invasion) to maintain their existence with a brand new aim. Putting these pieces together, we could argue that the September 11 attacks were not the reason for what is happening in Afghanistan today and the “20-year-long struggle against global terrorism”, but rather merely an intermediate stop in the journey of Al-Qaeda.
Although the internet seems to provide us with instant access to an infinite amount of information, “human memory inherently suffers from the disease of forgetfulness”, as goes the Turkish proverb. That is, the forgetfulness of individuals and societies still poses an obstacle to correct conclusions being drawn from historical events. The journey of Al-Qaeda, which intersected with the First Gulf War and the journey of Afghanistan, began in 1992 in the Arabian Peninsula-East Africa-South Asia triangle. In fact, for nine years, Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden gave all the signs pointing to their future attack on US territory. During those nine long years, however, Washington’s defense and intelligence mechanisms failed to consider the possibility that any terrorist organization capable of crossing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which they viewed as moats around a medieval castle, could commit mass murder on US soil.
The global terrorism originating in the Arabian Peninsula-East Africa-South Asia triangle
The ineffective bombing attacks in 1992 that targeted US soldiers staying in hotels in Aden, Yemen, before being dispatched to Somalia, were the first activities of Al-Qaeda. A year before the attack, the organization’s (then) leader, bin Laden, had relocated to Sudan, Somalia’s neighbor. The “Battle of Mogadishu” in 1993, during which more than 300 Somalis (including civilians) and 19 US soldiers were killed, also marked the beginning of the US administration’s as-yet-reserved policies regarding deploying troops in overseas territories. (In fact, US soldiers not leaving the airport to evacuate civilians during NATO’s withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 was justified by US President Joe Biden’s desire to avoid another “Mogadishu Nightmare”.)
In 1993, Al-Qaeda attempted (and failed) to attack the World Trade Center in New York. Although the attack, carried out with a bomb-laden vehicle, did not achieve the desired results, the experience gained from this attack aided in the development of the main plan of attack for the terrorist organization’s 2001 strike. In 1995 and 1996, two bomb vehicles were used to target US soldiers on Saudi Arabian soil. Although for many years Iran was held responsible for the attack on the Khobar Towers, in which 19 US soldiers were killed, the investigations carried out following the September 11 attacks raised the suspicion that the Saudi Arabian administration made efforts to blame the strike on Iran due to the conjuncture while also trying to ensure that a connection between this action and the citizens of Saudi Arabia, and especially Osama bin Laden, would not be established. The next time Al-Qaeda appeared was in 1998, when it attacked the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, claiming the lives of 224 people. Following these attacks, the US, as it would do in the invasion of Afghanistan, took yet another erroneous initiative in the name of a quick retaliation.
Bill Clinton, the US president at the time, authorized the response to the bombings of his country’s embassies on August 7, 1998, with a missile strike codenamed “Operation Infinite Reach” on August 20 of the same year. This was also the first time the United States used the term “preemptive attack” against an armed non-state establishment. US navy elements in the Indian Ocean would target Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, while US warships in the Red Sea would target the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (which allegedly helped Osama bin Laden acquire chemical weapons). Both attacks became scandals as a result of their outcomes. The number of casualties in al-Qaeda camps from the 60+ missiles launched from four US warships and a submarine was discovered to be less than 50. Later, it was revealed that the bombed-out Al-Shifa factory in Sudan did not have the capability of producing chemical weapons.
Convinced by this operation that the US had no information on them, Al-Qaeda launched an explosive-laden boat attack on the USS Cole warship in the port of Aden in 2000. The attack killed seventeen American sailors, and the ship’s hull was pierced, necessitating extensive repairs. Despite the fact that Al-Qaeda had been steadily increasing the intensity of its attacks over the previous eight years, neither the US nor the rest of the world realized that terrorism was gaining a global dimension as a result of the process initiated by bin Laden. Washington’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the September 11 attacks served to scatter, all over the world, the Al-Qaeda members who had been preparing for the war with the US in Yemen, East Africa, and Afghanistan for the previous ten years. The United States had opened Pandora’s Box by embarking on a military campaign in a country from which it would be forced to withdraw 20 years later. While the Taliban members who vanished with little resistance as the US invaded Afghanistan began their 20-year wait to reclaim their country, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists began to infiltrate Europe, Central and Southeast Asia, and the entire African continent. Thanks to US actions, terrorism had begun its global journey. Washington had messed with a tumor that should not have been operated on, and as a result, ended up spreading the cancer of terrorism to every continent.
While the US army futilely scoured the caves in the mountains of Tora Bora on the Pakistani border, thought to be bin Laden’s hideout, the rest of the world got a taste of the Al-Qaeda threat. While Tunisia, Indonesia, Egypt, Kuwait, Turkey, UK, Spain, and Morocco became first-time targets of the Al-Qaeda terror network, some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kenya, had to face this threat again. The discovery and assassination of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout in 2011 did not prevent the emergence of a new form of global terrorism centered on Al-Qaeda. The US invasion of Iraq opened the floodgates for the transfer of knowledge accumulated around the structure of Al-Qaeda to the Middle East. Second-generation terrorism, which took the name Daesh (ISIS, or ISIL) while passing through these gates and fed on the Syrian civil war as well, rose to a level where it managed to even dominate Mesopotamia for a time. The assassination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the organization’s founder, by the US in 2006 was also insufficient to stop Daesh, as it was in the case of bin Laden.
From the Philippines to Mauritania, bin Laden’s legacy lives on
Osama bin Laden’s legacy continues to have an impact on a chain stretching over 13 thousand kilometers, beginning in the Philippines and ending in the West African country of Mauritania, through groups that have pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda or Daesh.
Daesh-affiliated groups pose a threat to Mozambique’s natural gas fields as well as Nigeria’s oil fields. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, on the other hand, are gaining traction in Algeria, Tunisia, and Somalia, aided by youth unemployment and political/economic instability. France, which experienced a failure similar to the United States with “Operation Barkhane” in Mali, decided to end the operation (which began in 2014) in the first quarter of 2022. Beginning in 2022, not only the Afghanistan-centered South/Central Asia and the Middle East but also Sub-Saharan and Western Africa will most likely begin to face new dimensions of terrorism; days that began with the US and France’s slogan of “a global fight against terrorism” and ended in abysmal defeat.
Changing priorities and threat perceptions of the US
The US, which left the Taliban to face the Daesh/K terrorist organization while withdrawing from Afghanistan, appears to be looking to reduce, or even completely remove, its combat forces in Iraq and Syria very soon. The trend of abandoning the United States’ policy of maintaining bases and troops in foreign territories, which was put on the agenda during Barack Obama’s first term, is taking effect. The Biden administration intends to usher in a new era in which the $2+ trillion spent on Afghanistan over the last two decades will be used for US infrastructure investments beginning in 2022.
As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated shortly after his appointment, the US administration is abandoning the idea of exporting democracy to the rest of the world through military interventions. Fighting global climate change, fortifying health infrastructure against new epidemics, renovating 32 thousand kilometers of highways and ten thousand bridges across the United States, resolving the housing crisis, providing medical and educational services to citizens in need, and combating domestic terrorism will be the Biden administration’s new priorities. With a budget of more than $6 trillion over the next three years, the United States is preparing to implement a reconstruction project similar to the Marshall Plan for European lands following the Second World War.
The rest of the world, on the other hand, is now face to face with the fact that they have to produce their own solutions in the fight against the cancerous tumor that the US has spread to the entire body with its scalpel. The return of the Taliban marks a new turning point in the chain of errors that began with the United States sending troops to Saudi Arabia in 1991 and culminated with the September 11 terrorist attacks. At this critical juncture, when the United Nations is nearly defunct and NATO has chosen to exit the stage, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries now have a remarkable opportunity to develop a solution that would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a black hole that exports terror and migration to its neighbors, one that does not involve the US. A solution in Afghanistan that is independent of the US may open the door to a world in which the balances of international relations are re-determined, a world that Washington did not see coming.
*Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay
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