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Why the West Lost the War on Terror

On the anniversary of September 11th, we examine how and why the West made tragic mistakes in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

The morning of September the 11th 2001 will forever define the opening of this century. Seemingly out of nowhere, two passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. A third airliner flew into the Pentagon, where the US Department of Defense had its headquarters. A fourth had been on its way to the White House but was prevented from reaching its destination by the bravery of passengers on-board. Overall, the attacks claimed 2,977 lives and left over 25,000 people with injuries. It remains the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

Five days later the 43rd President of the United States George W. Bush declared the commencement of the War on Terror, waged to combat “a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” Since then several countries have been invaded, thousands of soldiers and civilians have lost their lives and trillions of dollars of public money have been spent. All of this leaves many questions begging to be answered. Most pressingly: what, if anything, has been achieved? What went wrong? What is now the way forward?

What Was Achieved?

Terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan in the ‘90s were never-ending. During the 1990s Taliban-controlled Afghanistan led the world as a sponsor and enabler of terrorist attacks. It was in this climate that Osama Bin Laden found refuge. In the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush, a CNN correspondent asked Osama in 1997, “What are your future plans?” Grinning like a cheshire cat, he replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.”

But Bin Laden’s ‘plans’ were already in motion. Months before the interview he had been involved in a plot to assassinate Bill Clinton, the then president of the United States at Manilla during the Asia-Pacific Economic cooperation conference.

A bomb was planted under a bridge which the presidential motorcade was due to drive over. The journey was rerouted just minutes before the bridge was reached, after secret service officers received intelligence warning of an imminent attack. Later, European law enforcement uncovered a plan against the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, targeting the England football team – most notably rising stars David Beckham and Michael Owen. Working in tandem with this attack other terrorists were preparing to fly a highjacked plane into the Civaux Nuclear Power Plane, thus creating Chernobyl-style multi-generational devastation.

Al-Qaeda had even more ambitions for the new millennium. As the world celebrated the dawn of a new century with fireworks and music, terror cells across a number of countries were preparing to use violence. On New Year’s Eve, Jordanian police arrested members of a cell which wanted to target Western tourists and blow up a large hotel in Amman. In Northern Lebanon, some 300 radical Islamists launched an offensive against the Lebanese army. Bassam Kanj and Raed Hijazi, the respective masterminds behind these attacks had met in the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, dubbed “the world’s first terrorist-sponsored state” not only provided training for an estimated 20,000 trainee terrorists in camps across the country but also made its infrastructure available to facilitate worldwide jihad. Ariana Afghan Airlines, the country’s national civilian airline, ferried Islamic militants, arms, cash and opium through the UAE and Pakistan. Kabul airport churned out reams of fake documents, allowing terrorists to travel out of the country, posing as pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and clerks.

Having the weight of an entire regime on side was a major advantage for the transnational terrorists. Even after al-Qaeda operatives drove truck bombs into US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Mullah Omar (Afghanistan’s Emir) refused to stop sheltering Bin Laden. Operation Infinite Reach, where four US Navy ships and a submarine stationed in the Arabian Sea fired 60-75 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto suspected training facilities, failed to take out any high-profile suspects. Indeed, according to a State Department cable, the missile strikes worsened Afghan-American relations but brought the Taliban and al-Qaeda closer together. A Taliban spokesman even told US officials that that “If [the Taliban] could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington, it would have.”

The events surrounding September 11 2001 proved that a new approach was desperately needed. Half of all FBI agents followed half a million leads, in what constituted America’s largest ever criminal investigation. The conclusion? Almost all the plane hijackers were confirmed to have received training in Afghanistan. What’s more, there was “clear and irrefutable” evidence linking the attacks back to Bin Laden.

George W. Bush had to act decisively. At the same time, he showed a side of himself that was markedly different from the hawkish approach that came to define his presidency. Rather than launch a surprise invasion, on September 12th he passed a message to Kabul via his national security council: surrender al-Qaeda or face war with the United States. Eight days later, he issued a public statement repeating the request, alongside calls to: release foreign nationals; protect journalists, diplomats and aid workers and close down terrorist training camps.

Regime change wasn’t even a requirement. The mullahs in Kabul were given a golden opportunity to preserve their power. Simply by cooperating, they could have avoided 20 years of war.

While the Grand Islamic Council, the Taliban’s law making body comprised of around 600 clerics issued a fatwa calling for Bin Laden’s expulsion, Omar overruled them. In his view, his guest wasn’t guilty. Besides, he described turning over an ally as “a disgrace for us and for Islamic thought and belief.”

Kabul’s refusal to comply with even the most modest demands tied Washington’s hands. Clinton’s limited intervention had failed. Years before 9/11, the CIA had scrapped plans to kidnap Bin Laden on the basis that such an operation would entail unacceptable risks to the lives of operatives. What’s more, the Bush administration was extremely anxious about the prospect of WMDs falling into the hands of rogue regimes – and for good reason. Not only had the terrorist training camps been used to experiment with chemical and biological weapons but Bin Laden had attempted to obtain the components of nuclear weapons. Whatever the cost, this had to be stopped.

On the 7th of October 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. American and British warplanes began targeting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. With 110 CIA officers, 350 special operations forces and roughly 5,000 marines, the Taliban were toppled in less than 10 weeks. In the process, the US only suffered a dozen fatalities. After Kabul fell on the 13th of November when the Taliban unexpectedly fled the city, the movement’s morale was undermined everywhere.

Across Afghanistan, Taliban fighters started laying down arms, blending into villages, making for the mountains or fleeing to Pakistan. Once Kandahar, their spiritual home, was captured they were finished as a political force – something even they conceded. “I think we should go home” were the words of Ambassador Zaeef.

Undoubtedly, the war involved innumerable mistakes and missteps. Nevertheless, missions were pulled off which pulverised the enemy. The Battle of Tora Bora, fought in a cave complex, resulted in the obliteration of 220 to 500 al-Qaeda fighters. While Bin Laden made a miraculous escape, when he appeared on video ten days later he was visibly aged and partially paralysed. Most importantly, putting him on the run forced him to focus on finding places to hide and staying alive. Plotting worldwide terror attacks would be put on the backburner.

Similarly, the war’s second large-scale battle, Operation Anaconda successfully rooted out al-Qaeda from the Shah-i-Kot valley. Around 800 combatants were killed, compared to just 8 on the US side. General Tommy Franks was totally justified in describing Anaconda as an “absolute and unqualified success.”

Critics of the war claim it didn’t reduce terrorism and fanaticism but only pushed them into Pakistan, Afghanistan nuclear-armed neighbour. Indeed, hundreds of operatives (including Bin Laden himself) fled across the border. Even so, Pakistani government cooperation with the US made this less of a problem.

According to the White House’s Global War on Terrorism report released in 2003, Pakistan had taken more than 500 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters into custody. Among those they passed onto America were USS Cole Plotter Walid bin Attash, 9/11 conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). With the aid of enhanced interrogation, such individuals provided invaluable information. Most notably, KSM broke like a dam, making at least 31 confessions about his involvement in past attacks and plans for the future. As a result, a “second wave” plot where shoe bombers would hijack a commercial airplane and fly it into LA’s tallest building was foiled.

Furthermore, establishing Afghan military bases also enabled the US to target terrorists across the border. Unmanned airplanes could be flown out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, remotely by operatives in America. Ironically, it was Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who stepped up this strategy, launching 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor. In fact, he ordered more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency.

Notwithstanding the collateral damage, the campaign’s effectiveness is undeniable. Altogether, up to 3,071 militants were blown to pieces, including approximately 75% of al-Qaeda’s leaders. Mass desertions, recruitment crises and paranoia plagued the organization. Atiyah Abd a-Rahman, al-Qaeda No.2, lamented how operatives were being “killed faster than they could be replaced.” In August 2011, he himself faced this fate. Bin Laden confided to a subordinate that “spying aircraft” were “exhausting us.”

Indeed, it was (in part) thanks to drone technology that Bin Laden was finally tracked down to a compound in Abbottabad, Northern Pakistan. The 38-minute operation, where US Navy seals climbed over the walls and killed the world’s most wanted terrorist while he was hiding in his bedroom at night, was only possible with an Afghan presence.

By this point, the US felt a deep distrust of Pakistan, something that the location of Bin Laden’s hideout, only 1.3 km southwest of the Pakistani military academy, did little to molify. Conducting the operation without their consent was the most effective option. Bagram Airfield in North-Eastern Afghanistan therefore proved to be an invaluable asset. From here, five helicopters were able to invade Pakistani airspace under the radar. The base was also used to transport Bin Laden’s body for analysis. Only once his identity had been confirmed through DNA tests could the mission be deemed truly accomplished.

With the head chopped off the snake of al-Qaeda, a phased withdrawal was on the cards. In 2011, 100,000 US troops were stationed in Afghanistan. By the time Obama left office, only 5,500 remained. Yet the US-backed government controlled 57% of the country’s territory, including every major city. Trump took this even further, leaving just 2,500 behind when he left office. Still, for an entire year, Taliban gains remained limited to non-strategic rural areas.

When we consider what ensued after the US departure, it’s now all the more apparent that a very limited military presence (requiring only $5 billion a year to sustain) made a massive difference. In April 2020 senior security sources told the BBC that since the invasion in October 2001, not a single international terrorist attack planned in the country had been carried out successfully.

What Went Wrong?

The early successes enjoyed by coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom are undeniable. Nonetheless their impact was overestimated. The Taliban were not, as it turned out a “spent force” as they were described by US central demand, and were in fact able to regroup relatively quickly in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan while also consolidating their leadership.

By 2002 an all-out guerrilla counter-offensive had began for which neither the new Afghan government nor their coalition allies were at all prepared. By 2006, the Taliban were back with a vengeance. Insurgent-initiated attacks were up by 400% and the resultant deaths had risen by 800%. Bush ignored calls for back-up. At this crucial time, 140,000 soldiers were stationed in Iraq, compared to a mere 20,000 in Afghanistan. Opening a second front in the War on Terror jeopardized the successes won previously on the first.

The Saddam Hussein regime had committed many irredeemable evils but supporting al-Qaeda was not one of them. The 9/11 Commission, set up to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the events of September 11 2001, found no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States. Bin Laden hated Hussein, regarding Ba’athism (Iraq’s state ideology) as anti-Islamic. As early as 1991, Osama had offered to send his own followers to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

At the same time, Saddam wasn’t averse to instrumentalizing Islam if it could bolster his credibility. The fallout of the Gulf War resulted in running inflation and unemployment reaching 50%. Iraqi society was traumatized and many turned to religion as a coping mechanism. To broaden his domestic support, in the mid-90s Hussein launched the Faith Campaign (al-Hamla al-Imaniya). He valorized Islamic teachings in schools, banned the open consumption of alcohol and constructed a mega mosque at a cost of $7.5 million, alongside a new university for Islamic studies.

Nevertheless, the inauthenticity of the dictator’s public piety is reflected by how he reprimanded the minister of endowment, Abdul Minem Ahmad Salih, for getting carried away in his dealings with Islamic personalities and groups. Junior army officers who had Salafi-Islamist leanings were put under surveillance by Saddam’s security forces. If and when these officers began showing signs that they might pose a threat to the inner workings of the regime, they’d either be expelled from the army or arrested. Such ruthlessness groups had its merits. Under Hussein’s reign, unlike other Arab countries such as Algeria and Egypt, Iraq never experienced a fully-fledged Islamist insurgency.

On the very eve of the American-led invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s lieutenants were preparing to evade Saddam’s (now weakened) security services and reach the Sunni-dominated areas to establish a foothold there, store weapons and recruit fighters for the coming conflict.

Bin Laden was thrilled with the war, remarking in October 2003, “Be glad of the good news: America is mired in the swamps of the Tigris and Euphrates. Bush is, through Iraq and its oil, easy prey. Here is he now, thank God, in an embarrassing situation and here is America today being ruined before the eyes of the whole world.” Likewise, al-Qaeda commander Seif al-Adl gloated, “The Americans took the bait and fell into our trap.”

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was among the terrorists who fled Afghanistan for Iraq after the Taliban fell. The Jordanian, who became Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers, gained a reputation for his blood lust which even Bin Laden’s close circle privately admonished against. Still, al-Qaeda was able to find new recruits inside the country, often among the destitute and impoverished, as well as 1,000-2,000 from overseas. Suicide bombing was al-Qaeda’s signature strategy. According to security expert Mohammed Hafez, the number of such ‘martyrdom operations’ from 2003-2007 surpassed those of Hamas in Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka combined.

Before the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda was on the ropes. The United States and its coalition partners had ousted the group from Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban. Inter-governmental cooperation was steadily shutting down terror cells from Morocco to Malaysia. Moreover, the global jihadist movement was deeply divided. Many of its members harshly criticized Bin Laden for having attacked America who in turn had destroyed the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, a regime many radicals regarded as the only “true” Islamic nation. But now the US had attacked a Muslim country, arguably without any provocation, Bin Laden’s description of the superpower as “unjust, criminal and tyrannical” suddenly resonated with a much wider audience.

Among Salafists, those who adhere to a literalist interpretation of Islam, supporting al-Qaeda had still been a relatively fringe view. Most adherents of this school of thought criticized the group for being excessively violent and political and for declaring jihad without due consideration. Nevertheless in the years following 2003, Salafi sheikhs began to view the armed struggle against the Americans in Iraq as legitimate. The call to expel the infidel occupiers even came from countries that were close American allies. In November 2004, 26 leading Saudi clerics wrote an “open letter to the Iraqi people” calling for a defensive jihad against the United States in Iraq.

Across the wider Muslim world, there had been an outpouring of sympathy for America after 9/11 – even from very extreme voices. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual father, denounced the attacks as a heinous crime and urged Muslims to donate blood to the victims. Similar condemnations came from Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah. 60,000 Iranians who gathered for a soccer match two days after the events observed a moment of silence. Huge crowds attended candlelit vigils on the streets of Tehran. But Bush’s invasion of Iraq caused this widespread spirit of good will to evaporate.

The situation was best summarized by US Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), when he told the Select Committee on Intelligence in 2005 that “Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment.” A study by counter-terror analysts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank found that “the Iraq war has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost” – and that figure includes not only a surge in attacks in Iraq itself, but also an increase in the rest of the world. Indeed, in Spain the 2004 Madrid bombings and in Britain, the 2005 London bombings were justified (in part) by the perpetrators on the basis that the nations targeted had joined America in invading Iraq.

Notwithstanding the loss of between 184,392 – 207,156 civilian lives during the conflict, ending Saddam’s brutal rule brought some benefits to the Iraqi people. Through elections they can now shape their own destiny – something which would have been unthinkable before the war. However nurturing democracy in Iraq has cost America dearly in financial terms ($2 trillion) and also in terms of its national security.

Shi’a Islamist parties, particularly the Da’wah Party, have dominated post-Saddam politics. This is concerning considering their close and long-standing relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, an arch enemy of America and itself a state sponsor of terrorism. In 2019, a 700-page leaked intelligence report from Iran revealed the extent to which the theocratic regime had outmanoeuvred the Americans in extending its influence in Iraq.

Multiple senior cabinet members were identified as either being “loyal to” or enjoying a “special relationship” with the Islamic Republic. Such descriptions extended even to prime ministers such as Ibrahim al-Jafari, Nouri al-Maliki and Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The files reveal that as top American diplomats met behind closed doors with their Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad, conversations were routinely reported back to Tehran.

Officers who had access to classified information were instructed to “Greet the [Iranian] brothers and tell them we are at your service… All of the Iraqi army’s intelligence consider it yours. Tell me whatever you need and I will guarantee it for you.” State-of-the-art secret targeting software the United States had entrusted to the Iraqis was also turned over. Ultimately, the US Army itself has conceded defeat, concluding in a two-volume study of the war that “An emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”

The transformation of Iraq into an Iranian satellite state also served to alienate the Sunni minority – only 15-20% of the population. There was considerable overlap between Shi’a death squads that terrorized Sunni communities and the official Iraqi military. According to multiple accounts, Iraqi army and police officers would also double down as militia members. Mahdi Gharawi, the former Commander of the Iraqi Federal Police and Lieutenant General of the Iraqi Army, was well-known for abusing his authority in this manner. His thugs became infamous for arbitrary arrests, torture and killing of hundreds of Sunnis. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2013 accused Gharawi and his associates of murdering five men, including a fifteen-year-old boy, during a raid in Mosul. Despite a history of appalling atrocities, the Iraqi PM blocked a warrant for his arrest.

Fuel was being added to a fire that would soon be burning out of control. A widespread feeling of Sunni humiliation was so ubiquitous it had its own name – madhloumiya. Although few had been major fans of Saddam, they’d enjoyed some limited perks and privileges under his rule, all of which were now being stripped away.

Many Sunnis had been part of the Ba’ath Party – more out of convenience than ideological conviction since it was a prerequisite for employment across multiple sectors. But the US policy of de-Baathification barred past party members from holding public sector positions. Dedicated civil servants, doctors, professors and teachers were suddenly out of work and out of pocket. Abu Mutlak, a staff lieutenant general under Hussein, was reduced to driving a taxi to support his family. His words epitomized a pervasive sense of bitterness: “How do you want me to take part in building a political system that dismissed me from everything and robbed me of everything?”

As had happened in the ‘90s, desperation drove Iraqis to seek solace in faith. Iraqi sociologist Walid al-Saad documented how after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, a tide of religious fervour swept across the country. The sectarian nature of the post-Saddam order encouraged people to no longer see themselves as citizens of one unified polity but in explicitly denominational terms. This reformulation of identity was most stark among Sunnis: “Many shifted from nationalism and secularism to Salafism and fundamentalism.”

Sunni feelings of victimization, coupled with a sense of rage against injustice, plus a renewed religious zeal created the perfect storm. Seemingly out of nowhere, in the summer of 2014 the Islamic State rose to prominence, capturing one third of Iraq. Whereas Bin Laden had only dreamed of establishing a caliphate, the group’s new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had achieved it in a matter of months. Their rapid expansion of territory was testimony to a ruthlessness that even al-Qaeda found difficult to stomach. Public beheadings, the enslavement and rape of religious minorities, destruction of ancient sites, the mass slaughter of civilians. Nothing was off limits. Thousands of radicalized recruits from around the globe flocked to join the cause. Europe was subjected to a series of ruthless terror attacks.

Within Iraq, the Sunnis who took up arms on behalf of ISIS can broadly be put into two categories. Those who genuinely subscribed to ISIS ideology and the doomsday prophecies and those who saw it as a tool to enact revenge against the rulers in Baghdad, as well as their American and Iranian patrons. Among the latter was a class of former Ba’athists, who’d once been proud and patriotic pillars of Saddam’s Iraq. With neither work nor dignity, this new utopian project could be used as a vehicle to regain lost power and prestige. According to one estimate 30% of senior figures in ISIS military command were former army and police officers from the disbanded Iraqi security services. Their skills and expertise transformed what had been little more than a mafia-like network into a professional army.

Ultimately, in trying to depose a dictator, the United States had created fertile ground for the worst terror organization the world has ever known. The Iraq war handed the country over to terrorists even more extreme than the ones the War on Terror had been waged to defeat.

Inadvertently opening the door to Islamists wasn’t the reserve of the Bush administration nor exclusively an American mistake. The way Western powers managed Libya in 2011 showed that lessons hadn’t been learnt.

Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya had once been a state sponsor of worldwide terrorism. For nearly two decades, the despot supported bombings in European cities (most notably Berlin), brought down civilian aircraft and financed self-styled ‘national liberation’ movements such as the PLO and IRA. When President Reagan described the man as “the mad dog of the Middle East” in 1986, he wore it as a badge of honor. However, on the night of the invasion of Iraq, the dog changed his bark. The regime’s special security units were ordered to remove large posters of the colonel hanging on the walls, for fear they’d be too provocative. Terrified US warplanes would suddenly appear in Libyan skies, Gaddafi realized his game of being a pariah had to come to an end.

Since one of the main justifications for invading Iraq was possession of WMDs, the Libyan leader calculated that his survival would be more likely if he owned up to what he had. On the 19th of December 2003, Gaddafi announced the voluntary elimination of the country’s chemical stockpiles, longest-range of ballistic missiles and plans for a nuclear bomb. For Washington and London, this was a badly needed win.

In 2004 American and British representatives traveled to Tripoli and made what became known as ‘the deal in the desert.’ As well as giving up materials, equipment and programs which could give rise to internationally proscribed weapons, Gaddafi agreed to atone for some of his past crimes. He accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombings and paid $10 million in compensation to each victims’ family. In return, sanctions were removed. The regime was free to sign lucrative contracts with foreign investors (most notably in the oil and gas sector) in order to kick-start Libya’s ailing and failing economy.

Perhaps more importantly, Gaddafi and the West came to the conclusion that they had a common enemy: al-Qaeda. While Islam was incorporated into state ideology, like with Saddam, this was more of an opportunistic accommodation. In reality, the ideas of his Little Green Book and pan-Africanism held more sway. Naturally, this made Libya a target for Islamists. Both MI5 and MI6 cooperated with the country’s security services.

Unfortunately, the ‘romance’ was to be short-lived. All the achievements and opportunities rapprochement brought about were thrown away.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi on the 15th of February 2011. After security forces fired on the crowd, a rebellion was ignited across the country. Was Libya undergoing a liberal democratic awakening? Certainly, a portion of the opposition was of this persuasion. The writer and political commentator Jamal al-Hajji was an activist who promoted demonstrations in support of greater freedoms in Libya. By the time a full-scale civil war broke out, there was a wide variety of rebels, consisting of students, teachers, oil workers and also defected police officers and former soldiers.

At the same time, Islamists made up a sizeable share of those fighting under the anti-Gaddafi umbrella, most notably the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – an organization previously banned worldwide for its links with al-Qaeda. According to a 2008 State Department cable, Eastern Libya was a hotbed of extremism, particularly in and around Dernah, where radical imams propagated messages urging support for and participation in jihad. Al-Qaeda documents which fell into American hands in 2007 suggested Libya had produced “far more” foreign fighters (who’d travelled to Iraq to attack coalition forces) than any other nation. With all of this information available, surely it made sense for Western powers to tread with caution?

A humanitarian crisis appeared to be unfolding and it seemed unbecoming for the torchbearers of human rights to look the other way. Undeniably, regime loyalists committed atrocities. Amnesty International initially reported that writers, intellectuals and other prominent opposition sympathizers disappeared during the early days of the conflict in Gaddafi-controlled cities. They suggested that they may have been subjected to torture or execution.

Nevertheless, Amnesty produced a more thorough report in June 2011, detailing how many of the allegations against Gaddafi had turned out to be fabricated or lacking credible evidence, outlining how opposition figures had (at times) appeared to have knowingly invented false stories to garner sympathy. Claims of Gaddafi’s forces committing mass rape was perhaps the most grotesque report coming out of Libya. Yet Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty who’d been in Libya for three months after the uprising, stated “we have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped.” Likewise, no evidence substantiated the claim that aircraft or heavy anti-aircraft machine guns were used against crowds. Such findings were corroborated by the authoritative International Crisis Group, concluding that while the Gaddafi regime had a history of brutally repressing opponents, there was no question of genocide.

While the bulk of the Western media portrayed Gaddafi as a monster, rebel crimes against humanity mostly went under the radar. As well as looting homes, businesses and hospitals, they were notorious for lynching black sub-Saharan African migrants they falsely accused of being “mercenaries” for the regime.

Despite being a dictator, Gaddafi always enjoyed substantial popular support, something acknowledged by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: “I had my hands tied by the vote of the parliament of my country. But I was against and I am against this intervention which will end in a way that no-one knows. This wasn’t a popular uprising because Gaddafi was loved by his people, as I was able to see when I went to Libya.” Afterall, he was winning the civil war!

In March 2011, loyalists launched a counteroffensive and were regaining control of many of the cities that had been lost to opposition forces. By the middle of the month, their tanks were rolling into Benghazi – the main remaining bastion of opposition forces. It was at this point that the NATO-led multinational coalition began a large scale air-based military intervention to disable the Gaddafi government’s military capabilities.

As rebels stormed Libya’s cities screaming “Allah hu Akbar!,” it wasn’t long before Gaddafi himself would meet his maker. A group of militants found the man hiding in a drainage pipe. Several videos have appeared showing the once proud leader with a bloodied face and shirt, being beaten and dragged, sodomized with a bayonet and then shot in the head. Despite the total disregard for due process, Hillary Clinton (the then secretary of state) was ecstatic: “We came. We saw. He died.”

Less than a year later, the smile was wiped off her face. On the 11th of September 2012, heavily armed extremists laid siege to the US consulate in Benghazi, killing 4 Americans including the Ambassador to Libya J Christopher Stevens. The attack was traced back to Ansar al-Sharia, one of the multiple Islamist groups energized by the revolution.

Far from creating a land of milk and honey, Libya went from having the highest Human Development Index in Africa to a failed state, leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding out. Its feeble central government was forced by Islamist militias to flee the capital, taking refuge in the east where it barely kept a grip on power. Naturally, this was another golden opportunity for ISIS whose black and white flag started popping up across the country.

The real ‘blow-back’ from the operation occurred on the 22nd of May 2017 when Salman Ramadan Abedi detonated a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb as people were leaving an Ariana Grande pop concert. Of course, it’s the 22-year-old terrorist who should shoulder the burden of responsibility for his actions. Nevertheless, the British establishment still has a lot to answer for.

UK intelligence agencies covertly supported Libyan exiles (living in Britain) as pawns against Gaddafi. This is in spite of their close association with the aforementioned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Previously, members of this community had been kept a close eye on, were subject to control orders and had their passports confiscated. But during the uprising, these restrictions were mysteriously revoked. Salman himself (a second generation British-Libyan) had been identified by MI5 as a “subject of interest” for being a known extremist. Yet he’d been free to travel to Libya and join the jihad. After being injured in 2014, Salman and his brothers were rescued by the Royal Navy, taken to Malta and flown back to the UK. He rewarded the country of his birth, the country that had saved his life, by blowing himself up and in turn killing 22 of his fellow compatriots.

Supporting groups which wish harm on the West also continued in Syria. The ruling Assad family presided over a secular state, facilitating a pluralistic civil society. The otherwise persecuted Alawite Muslim minority lived alongside Shi’as, Sunnis and Christians in relative harmony. While Damascus was more tilted towards Moscow, post-9/11 they also had intelligence-sharing arrangements with the CIA and MI6 to counter al-Qaeda.

Yet when the Syian civil war broke out, America and its allies chose to view the conflict through a one-dimensional lens. The very real crimes of Assad’s forces were called out but a blind eye was turned to the actions of the Free Syrian Army, who threw postal workers off high-rise buildings, destroyed churches and ate the hearts of captives. What should have been a red line was the FSA’s open collaboration with the Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria). But until the Trump administration, they continued to enjoy the blessings of the West, receiving an untold amount of financial support and weaponry. In 2014 alone their central command structure was gifted $6 million from the US. At a time when ISIS were making major inroads into Syria, at its height controlling a third of the nation’s territory, what sense did it make to destabilize the main bulwark against their advance? Going after Assad was the equivalent of trying to overthrow Stalin as he held back Hitler’s forces.

The Way Forward?

Why has the West targeted secular nationalist leaders and allowed Iran, al-Qaeda and ISIS to fill the power vacuums left behind? Some have suggested it’s their hostility towards the state of Israel, America’s number 1 regional ally. Yet Islamists hate the Jewish homeland more than anyone else. Other scholars such as the Marxist Michael Parenti have inferred a more malign motive. Supposedly, these rulers were targeted for pursuing protectionist and socialistic economic programs. Destabilization can thus be seen as a punishment for not kow-towing to Western commercial interests. But this makes even less sense. In 2003, as American forces were massing on the Iraqi border, Saddam offered the US “first priority as it relates to Iraqi oil.” Similarly, the likes of British Petroleum already had major investments inside Gadaffi’s Libya which they lost when oil production plummeted after the dictator’s overthrow. Before the civil war, Syria was liberalizing its markets, moving away from centralized state planning. How was the chaos that ensued in any way conducive to the profits of big business?

In all likelihood, the havoc that followed the fall (or in Syria’s case, the weakening) of these regimes was the result of policy failure rather than deliberate sabotage. It seems more likely that Western governments believed, on the basis of flawed logic, that targeting certain regimes would in fact diminish the threat of terrorism. Clearly, the opposite has happened.

Only by interrogating and understanding the reasoning provided can an alternative approach to the War on Terror be devised.

Even though his predecessors deviated from his strategy (sometimes quite radically), it was ultimately George W. Bush who initiated the War on Terror, and who set a course for American policy in the Middle East. In multiple statements and speeches, the then President claimed democracy was the antidote to terrorism, as exemplified by his address to the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003: “The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.” Unfortunately, such a bold claim doesn’t reflect reality.

Political scientist Robert Pape, in his documentation of suicide terrorist attacks, highlights how democracies are actually at an increased risk of being targeted. He postulates this is because their publics have a low threshold of cost tolerance and high ability to affect state policy. Alternatively, in autocracies, a tyrant has no incentive to capitulate to terrorist causes – the will of the people simply doesn’t matter.

The lack of any link between robust democratic institutions and terrorism can be found all over the world. India, the world’s most populous democracy, from 1986-2001 had over 400 terrorist attacks whereas China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, suffered fewer than 20. Since opening to democracy in the late 1990s, Indonesia suffered more not less terrorism by radical Islamist groups than it did in the preceding two decades under authoritarian rule. Thailand’s democratization coincided with a growing problem of violence from Muslim separatists.

More importantly, it was always apparent that across the Middle East, there was (and still is) pervasive anti-Americanism. According to a 2002 Gallup poll, 64% of those surveyed in Saudi Arabia and 62% in Jordan rated the US unfavorably. This coupled with widespread support for sharia law across the region should have been a red flag. Professor F. Gregory Gause foresaw how democracy promotion would “help bring to power governments much less cooperative on a whole range of issues.” He eerily predicted that “A new Islamist-democratic state would override the realist goals of the Bush administration.”

Indeed, in the majority of cases when the West has put its weight behind elections, they’ve propelled extremely hostile forces into power. Iranian-backed Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose forces engaged in armed attacks on coalition troops, ended up controlling a sizable bloc in the Iraqi Parliament. He used his position (which wouldn’t have ever existed were it not for the US) to issue threats against Washington. Elections in the Palestinian territories in January 2006 resulted were won by the Islamist Hamas party – a designated terrorist organization. Egyptian elections in 2012 led to a landslide victory of the Muslim Brotherhood – a group who have supported suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Does the failure of democracy to deliver desirable results in these countries mean dictatorship should be promoted instead? Proponents of this view stand accused of orientalism, even racism. Are Muslims incapable of governing their own affairs? If the people of a country want a theocracy, why should America or anyone else stop them? There are different ways of answering this question. From a self-interested perspective, since the primary role of Western foreign policy in any region should be to keep Western citizens safe, it makes no sense to facilitate anti-Western extremists. Democracy in countries where such extremism exists can also endanger the lives of minorities within those societies.

After succeeding at the ballot box, Islamists in Gaza and the West Bank attempted to exterminate members of Fatah, the official opposition. In Iraq, Islamist members of parliament tried to legalize marriage to girls as young as 8. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood victory coincided with attacks on the country’s Coptic Christians. How is such a system of ‘democracy’ conducive to human wellbeing? Why should 80% have the right to subjugate 20%? If it’s a choice between Islamist mob rule or a despotism that broadly upholds the rights of women, children and minorities, the latter should surely be the preferred option.

In the twentieth century, the West faced down Marxism-Leninism – a much more formidable form of totalitarianism, at one point dominating a third of the world. Like the Islamists of today, the Communists were happy to use freedoms afforded to them to pursue a project that would ultimately destroy democracy. Rather than standing back and allowing country after country to fall, the United States sometimes compromised its principles in order to preserve them.

Emboldened by their honorable fight against Fascism, Communist partisans across Europe were often viewed as national heroes. When the Soviets agreed to relatively free elections in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Communists won a sizable share of the vote and even formed coalition governments with their ideological opponents. But after they’d consolidated power, liberal and nationalist politicians mysteriously went missing, were arrested on trumped up charges or were thrown out of windows. Thus, when the polls predicted the scheduled 1948 elections were going to lead to a Communist-led Popular Front triumph in Italy, the American establishment made a move.

On the 8th of March, the National Security Council – the organization tasked to coordinate US national security policy among the armed forces, the State Department and the CIA recommended that American agencies escalate their anti-communist activities “by all feasible means.” Italian-American communities were encouraged to write home, urging their families to vote against the PCI. The CIA has acknowledged bankrolling Italian centrist parties to the tune of at least $1 million and is also alleged to have forged letters to discredit and disgrace Italian Communist leaders. The Christian Democrats eventually claimed victory in the 1948 election with 47% of the vote. American interference in Italy continued until at least the 1960s. Was covertly manipulating the outcomes of elections hypocritical for a power that purported to be the leader of the free world? Perhaps, but had these steps not been taken, Italian democracy might well have been killed in the cradle.

On several occasions, US administrations used the CIA to overthrow obstreperous democratic governments and install pro-American ‘strongmen.’ Such operations took place in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. As the Cold War raged on, dictators across Asia, Africa and Latin America received military support and millions in aid to help them hold back the red tide. Simultaneously, America sponsored free and fair elections across Western Europe and at a great expense, built up West Germany and Japan into fully functioning liberal democracies.

The rationale behind the split personality of American foreign policy was best reflected by JFK’s approach towards the Dominican Republic: “There are three possibilities… in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” Therefore, democracy promotion was an objective of US foreign policy but it was subordinate to the objective of countering communism.

For all its flaws, the Cold War strategy was successful. Afterall, by 1991 the Soviet Union and its satellite states had collapsed and America emerged as the world’s sole superpower. Thus, the same approach should be taken when dealing with Islamists. When a democracy broadly aligned with Western objectives and values faces an Islamist insurgency, it should be fully supported. Pre-August 2021 Afghanistan would meet this criteria. Similarly, when a popular movement made up of moderates/liberals is resisting an Islamic theocracy, democracy promotion should be the aim. The Iranian protestors of 2017 and 2018 would fit this profile. On the other hand, if an authoritarian regime is faced with an organized opposition that wants to replace it with an Islamic state, the status quo should be upheld.

Tolerating tyranny doesn’t need to be a long-term policy. While Reagan was perhaps more belligerent in dealing with the USSR (describing it as an “evil empire”), his policies were broadly in line with his predecessors. When Moscow-backed forces were gaining ground in Central America, his administration allied with their opponents – many of whom were unsavory. For example, the Contras in Nicaragua were guilty of numerous human rights violations. However, as the power and influence of the Soviet Union waned, the course of US action changed.

In 1983 the National Endowment for Democracy was formed. This legally private but publicly-funded entity had the explicit mission of promoting democracy worldwide. The foundation financed democratic groups to succeed pro-US dictatorships in the Philippines and Chile, as well as to replace Marxist governments in Nicaragua and Poland. Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, America was able to drop its support for various dictators and assist the flourishing of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, a spirit which quickly spread around the globe. Decades down the line, if Islamists become as insignificant as Communists are today, the West can enthusiastically support a new wave of democratization in the Muslim world.


When the history books are written, the launching of the War on Terror shouldn’t be portrayed as an unnecessary or unjust pursuit. The free world and by extension civilization itself was attacked. America and its allies had both the legal and moral right to respond.

At the same time, it should forever be remembered as a failure. The lack of a coherent strategy resulted in the West pursuing schizophrenic policies, sometimes toppling Islamists but more often inadvertently bringing them to power.

The War on Terror was fought on multiple fronts but had no clear goal. It dragged on for two decades, drained the public purse and resulted in brave young men and women coming home in body bags. Therefore, when Biden announced the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan last year, it’s totally understandable that the vast majority of Americans breathed a sigh of relief.

But by abandoning the one large-scale post-9/11 intervention that actually made sense, twenty years of nation-building was thrown away in less than a month. Today’s Taliban are just as extreme as before and their ties to terrorists are even stronger. A UN May 2020 report found that their close connection with al-Qaeda had continued throughout the war based on “friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.” Suicide bombers serve in the army and Sirajuddin Haqqani, a man on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, is the acting interior minister.

The Taliban’s takeover will have far-reaching implications. Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London, predicts that “A lot of groups will piggyback on this victory – if the Taliban can do it, you can do it.” As the Afghan insurgents gained ground, militants everywhere felt invigorated. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “reported fatalities linked to African militant Islamist groups rose by a third in 2020” and violence linked to the extremists was up by 43%. Two months before Kabul fell, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released its first English-language copy of its “Inspire” magazine in over four years.

Sadly, the ideological sickness that gave rise to the attacks on that dreadful day of 9/11 is spreading. Only a focussed foreign policy can contain the virus of Islamism and thereby guarantee security, liberty and durable democracy.

Tal Tyagi is the author of Afghanistan: The Cost of Withdrawal, available on Amazon.

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