The Strategic Distraction of 9/11

The ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC passed Saturday with all of the depressing pomp and gravity that Americans have come to expect on these occasions. The President spoke, the usual people pointed with pride, viewed with alarm.

So what have the Americans got after nine years of war, and what are their real options?

"The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks may well have thought they were setting the West ablaze by antagonizing the American people," said Gavin M. Greenwood, a senior associate with Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong-based political and security risk firm. "In fact they have achieved almost the opposite – the creation of a security state that mirrors the architecture of occupation, its attendant bureaucracies and petty humiliations. Unlike previous major wars, which balanced mass casualties against great medical and technological advances, all we've got is intrusive surveillance and long queues – and barely an iota of additional security.'

The United States, Greenwood and other analysts argue, has been diverted from its six decade-old role as global policeman to the singular goal of fighting terrorism. To the detriment of world stability, the reaction to the 9/11 attacks dragged the US into an unnecessary war in Iraq, spread its forces across the globe to Afghanistan and made it difficult to go to the aid of its allies in all but the most precarious situations.

By the time the last crippled veteran of the war in Iraq is paid off and buried, the Iraq War alone is expected to have cost US$1 trillion. The meter on the Afghan conflict is still running. It has poisoned the political dialogue in the United States and made it immeasurably more difficult for President Barack Obama to do his job.

"At the root of all of this was a profound lack of understanding of al Qaeda, particularly its capabilities and intentions. Since we did not know what was possible, our only prudent course was to prepare for the worst," George Friedman, the head of the respected country risk firm STRATFOR argued in an analysis last week "That is what the Bush administration did. Nothing symbolized this more than the fear that al Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons and that they would use them against the United States. The evidence was minimal, but the consequences would be overwhelming."

Former President George W Bush has taken his share of the blame for US unpreparedness prior to the tragedy, but it is difficult to blame Bush alone. Despite charges that the Bush administration ignored warnings of the attacks, in fact, the data provided by the intelligence agencies wasn't actionable enough to identify a particular target

The greatest failure of American intelligence was not the lack of a clear warning about 9/11 but the lack, on Sept. 12, of a clear picture of al Qaeda's global structure, capabilities, weaknesses and intentions, Friedman continued. "Without such information, implementing US policy was like piloting an airplane with faulty instruments in a snowstorm at night."

In the last nine years no serious attack has taken place on US soil. That is either due to blind luck as in the attempts by Richard Reid, the so-called Shoe Bomber, who attempted to blow up a jetliner in 2001 by lighting explosives in his shoes, and later by Umar Farouk Abdul Moutallib, the Underwear Bomber, who sought to blow up plastic explosives in his crotch – or because an active intelligence community has stopped potential attacks. Nonetheless, the huge Homeland Security Agency kept the country on Orange Alert until the citizenry stopped believing in it.

What is increasingly clear is that the western powers vastly overestimated the capability of Al Qaeda, operating from caves on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to mount sophisticated operations, and even their successive attempts to attack the US have been relatively inept. The vast US response was so out of proportion that it has tied the nation down in places where it has no business operating. Although Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry was derided by Republicans, particularly by Vice President Richard Cheney, during the 2006 presidential campaign for advocating a "nuanced approach" to fighting the terrorists and ultimately lost the election, the Bush administration's efforts were maladroit, often ill-advised and made far more enemies in the Muslim world than necessary.

Despite the fact that al Qaeda could almost have been defined as a cluster of criminal gangs rather than as a disciplined military force, the 9/11 tragedy actually forced a redefinition of the US global strategy and turned it in a new direction. The Bush administration, it must be remembered, issued a stunning National Security Strategy in September of 2002, which has been called "the most fundamental reassessment of American grand strategy in over half a century," primarily based on an assertion that the United States would act unilaterally and preemptively against any threat it deemed to be a danger to the US, regardless of its corollary effects on either allies or enemies.

Thus, Friedman argues, having won the Cold War and thwarted Soviet plans to dominate Europe, the US's prevailing strategy at the time was to block potential regional rivals and preserve the balance of power. The falling towers changed the course of US strategy.

"Rather than adapting its standing global strategy to better address the counterterrorism issue, the United States became obsessed with a single region, the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush. Within that region, the United States operated with a balance-of-power strategy. It played off all of the nations in the region against each other. It did the same with ethnic and religious groups throughout the region and particularly within Iraq and Afghanistan, the main theaters of the war. In both cases, the United States sought to take advantage of internal divisions, shifting its support in various directions to create a balance of power. That, in the end, was what the surge strategy was all about."

Now, Friedman argues with considerable justification, "with no clear end in sight, the question is whether this continued focus is strategically rational for the United States. Given the uncertainties of the first few years, obsession and uncertainty are understandable, but as a long-term U.S. strategy the long war that the US Department of Defense is preparing for it leaves the rest of the world uncovered."

Saddam Hussein, whatever his demons, and there were undeniably many, was a secular bulwark against Iran. With Saddam removed, the Iranians have gained unprecedented power in the region. Friedman argues that the US has to stay in Iraq to contain Iran.

But, he says, "It is difficult to make a similar case for Afghanistan. Its strategic interest to the United States is minimal. The only justification for the war is that al Qaeda launched its attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. But that justification is no longer valid. Al Qaeda can launch attacks from Yemen or other countries. The fact that Afghanistan was the base from which the attacks were launched does not mean that al Qaeda depends on Afghanistan to launch attacks. And given that the apex leadership of al Qaeda has not launched attacks in a while, the question is whether al Qaeda is capable of launching such attacks any longer. In any case, managing al Qaeda today does not require nation building in Afghanistan."

The Taliban leadership now poses a huge problem for the US, however, given the fact that its strategic goals usually – but not always –have a component that includes human dignity and human rights. Abandoning Afghanistan would mean abandoning its women to the most savage kind of fate. This is a mediaeval tribal society that can and does cut off women's noses and ears for the mere act of refusing to marry men they find abhorrent. Two weeks ago, a young couple was stoned to death in a tribal area for having had the temerity to elope while belonging to different clans.

But as one observer points out, "They also do horrible things to women in Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Somalia and Chad. They still have dowry killings in India."

They do, but the US chose to make its stand in Afghanistan. It has sought to educate women and give them the freedom and dignity they deserve. Women in Afghanistan have accepted the challenge. Leaving them now would be an enormously cruel fate.

But a quagmire is a quagmire. They have swallowed up US military machines and the nation's wealth and turned its soldiers into murderers since they sought to conquer Mexico in the 1850s and the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century, not to mention Vietnam and now Afghanistan.