September Issue 2015
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington 14 years ago, it rapidly became fashionable to claim that the world would never be the same. This was fairly obvious in some ways, and something of an exaggeration in other respects.
A series of mostly unfortunate consequences have indeed flowed from the brutally audacious outrages of September 11, 2001, propelled in large part by the American reaction to what was viewed as the first foreign attack on its soil since Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.
It’s worth remembering, though, that whereas the destruction of the Twin Towers and the rupturing of the Pentagon provided an excuse for actions that might otherwise have been considered rather too rapacious, they conformed by and large to a well-established pattern of behaviour.
Back in the autumn of 2001, hardly anyone in the world would have raised a serious objection to a spot of police action: sending in special forces, for instance, to target al-Qaeda in Tora Bora. Instead, the terrorist organisation’s hierarchy and many of its foot soldiers were able to slip away despite the western invasion of Afghanistan. Most of them found refuge in Pakistan.
The Americans were thrilled, meanwhile, when the Taliban seemingly disappeared from Kabul — only to return with a vengeance a few years later, having donned by then the additional mantle of resistance to foreign military occupation. The revelation last month that their leader, Mullah Omar, had been dead for at least two years was followed by a flurry of attacks that claimed dozens of lives in Kabul.
The western forces are mostly gone. The Taliban are around, and Pakistan is still being accused of harbouring them, even as it purportedly combats the Pakistani variant of this distressing phenomenon.
Their resurgence in Afghanistan a decade or so ago was facilitated, of course, by the fact that the US decided to focus its energies on a bigger target. It is salutary to recall that more than two-thirds of Americans considered the regime of Saddam Hussein a suitable adversary because of its role in 9/11. The insinuation was pure fantasy, and the stalwarts of the Bush administration who spread the lie knew that to be the case.
They also had a somewhat more believable back-up excuse, namely that Saddam was on the verge of realising his nuclear ambitions. All the available data pointed in a different direction, but there was little embarrassment in Washington when it eventually emerged that the Iraqi dictator had indeed dismantled his nuclear project in the mid-1990s.
Then America changed its tune, instead arguing that its occupation was about liberating Iraqis and establishing a template for free-market democracy in the Middle East. It was nonetheless deeply disconcerted a few years later, when Arab populations began rising up against US-allied dictators such as Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
The extent to which the so-called Arab Spring was a consequence of what happened in Iraq is debatable, of course, but there is undoubtedly at least a casual connection. It’s far simpler to establish a pattern of causality between the invasion and the emergence of the entity that calls itself Islamic State (IS). Although it is commonplace to blame its emergence on Bashar al-Assad’s duplicity, its self-proclaimed “caliph”, who goes by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a direct heir of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) amid the chaos spawned by the US-led occupation.
Zarqawi, whose predilection for sectarian violence had led to reprimands from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was successfully targeted almost a decade ago, amid claims that the assassination effectively spelt the end of AQI. That turned out to be yet another grievous miscalculation.
IS today controls a vast swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria, and a US-led bombing campaign launched earlier this year thus far does not appear to have affected it substantially. It has proven adept at drawing recruits not just from the neighbourhood, but also from Muslim communities in the west, and has lately been making apparent inroads into Afghanistan and Pakistani tribal territories.
Even if al-Qaeda is something of a busted flush, it has been replaced by a decidedly more dangerous entity — and, furthermore, one that in all probability would not have sprung into existence but for the invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago.
Back then, it wasn’t hard to predict that one of the biggest regional beneficiaries would be Iran. That has indeed proved to be the case, much to the consternation of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf, who appear to be far more concerned about Tehran’s influence than about the IS threat. Hence their fervent opposition, alongside Israel, to the recent nuclear deal between global powers and Iran. Meanwhile, whatever progress has been made on the ground against IS in Iraq and Syria can be attributed to the efforts of Iranian-affiliated militias and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The deal with Iran, incidentally, constitutes a significant break for the US with the pattern of behaviour in the Middle East established under George W Bush, who infamously designated the nation as part of an “axis of evil” (alongside Syria and North Korea). Had at least some of his generals not realised they had bitten off more than they could chew in Iraq, it is quite likely Bush would have been persuaded by the key neoconservatives in his administration — from vice-president Dick Cheney to defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz — to attack Iran as well, precipitating a disaster of substantially greater proportions.
Equally, al-Qaeda’s audacity is deemed to have encouraged jihadist movements from the Middle East to North Africa and beyond, from al-Qaeda in Yemen — long a target of American drone attacks but currently informally allied with Saudi Arabia against the Houthis — to al-Shibaab and Boko Haram. But these groups also drew sustenance from events in Iraq and Afghanistan, which facilitated a view of Islam under attack from infidels — even though two of the perpetrators-in-chief, Bush and his close comrade-in-arms Tony Blair, the British prime minister, were in fact fundamentalists of the ahl-i-kitab variety, claiming to be guided by private conversations with God.
The Middle East’s distress has been compounded by the fact that no progress whatsoever has been made towards resolving what used to be viewed as the region’s core conflict. In the immediate wake of 9/11, while international attention was focused elsewhere, Ariel Sharon saw an opportunity to send his tanks into the occupied West Bank in ostensible pursuit of Palestinian ‘terrorists,’ and the opportunity to negotiate a two-state solution has steadily receded ever since. The Likud-led regime of Benjamin Netanyahu barely bothers even to pay lip service to that concept.
With conflicts of varying intensity raging across the region, from Libya, Syria and Turkey to Iraq and Yemen, the Palestinian cause has inevitably taken a back seat, and anyone who suspects something positive could emerge in this context from the current spat between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over the Iranian nuclear deal is guilty of undue optimism.
Another aspect of the post-9/11 environment is the extent to which the great beacon of freedom and democracy aka the US of A, which was even in the first place never quite as bright as it imagined itself to be, has further been dimmed by a string of revelations about its activities. A few place-names should suffice to create a mental picture: Bagram, for instance. And, of course, Abu Ghraib. Then there’s the prison at Guantanamo Bay — itself a piece of occupied Cuban territory — that Barack Obama promised to shut down. Two-thirds of the way into his second presidential term, this has yet to be achieved.
Let us also not forget the so-called black sites in Europe, or the fact that suspects were often handed over for torture to countries such as Syria and Libya, before their regimes were deemed worthy of removal. Obama also promised to put an end to torture by the CIA and other American agencies. This may have been achieved, but it’s hard to tell. After all, it’s easy to be sceptical about vows of less inhumane behaviour by an administration that routinely draws up “kill lists” of people — occasionally including American citizens — for its militarised drones to target in countries with which the US is not at war. Playing judge, jury and executioner may resonate with some of those reared on legends of the Wild West, but it is hardly a defensible basis for the conduct of international relations in the 21st century.
Unmanned drones are the kind of killing machines that megalomaniacs with too much power and money, and not enough sense, have long hankered for. They provide the means for open-ended conflict: a dream come true for belligerent despots, a seemingly interminable nightmare for their victims. The new era of warfare they have inaugurated can be guaranteed to endure for a while. However, the technology behind them isn’t sophisticated enough to remain exclusive for long, hence conventions against the belligerent use of drones may not be too far away.
It’s harder, though, to imagine the level of surveillance that has crept in over the past decade and a half diminishing anytime soon. Its extent in the US was revealed through documents leaked by National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, who has, somewhat ironically, found temporary asylum in Russia. The degree to
which all too many western nations keep tabs on their citizens is reminiscent in some ways of 20th-century
totalitarianism. It may, as claimed, have helped to thwart a few terrorist attacks — the data that could be used as a basis for assessing such claims remains out of public reach — but the violations of the right to privacy, which cover everyone and not just “high-risk individuals,” are mind-boggling.
Islamophobia, meanwhile, may not be an ideal term for a parallel phenomenon whereby it’s not so much the faith as its adherents that are being singled out for discrimination and abuse. The European groups pursuing this tendency, based either purely on racism, or on the assumption that all Muslims are potential terrorists or somehow complicit in terrorism, tend to be on the periphery of their respective societies, but they are growing — and often feel encouraged by official rhetoric or laws. What often adds to the vitriol, though, is the self-righteousness of self-ordained Muslim “representatives” and their reluctance to explicitly denounce abominable crimes, such as this year’s Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
Not all these issues can, or should, be directly traced back to the mass murder perpetrated in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. At the same time, one can hardly ignore the fact that the unwise reaction to the dastardly crime unleashed consequences that will be with us for a long time to come.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.