Launched after the 9/11 attacks, the US War on Terror’s initial goal of neutralising Al Qaeda later morphed into military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq
n August 2, President Biden announced that the US had carried out a drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, killing Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor after he was assassinated about 11 years ago.
Though the United States has not officially announced this, the War on Terror has ended with the elimination of the top Al Qaeda leadership. Spanning over more than two decades, the longest war in the history of the United States has transformed the world. Now is a good time to look back at it and evaluate its causes and consequences.
Arguably, the United States policies in the Middle East, and most significantly its one-sided support to Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, radicalised the revisionist movements in the region.
For the United States, supporting tyrannical monarchies and dictatorships was an affordable, though perilous, strategy. The First Intifada exposed the fault lines in the region.
The 1990s saw the palpable shift in the nature of regional socio-political stability when Iraq attacked Kuwait, Saudi Arabia hosted American forces to defend itself and the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Other territorial disputes in the Muslim world - Kashmir, Chechnya, Kosovo – also enflamed the anger. Al Qaeda and Central Asian radical organisations found safe heavens in Afghanistan to plan a terrorist attack of unorthodox nature and of unprecedented magnitude. They converted passenger airplanes into strategic weapons to bring down the World Trade Centre and attack the Pentagon. In later video statements, Al Qaeda leaders assumed responsibility for the attack and cited US policies in the Middle East as the primary reason for its actions.
This resulted in the mobilisation of the most expensive force in the history of mankind. Initially, the objective was to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent another 9/11. However, once the Taliban were toppled, the US decision makers lost their focus. They quickly started a war in Iraq and broadened the scope of their presence in Afghanistan to nation building although there was no consensus on what it actually meant.
According to a book published recently, President Bush did not remember the name of his war commander in Afghanistan and Secretary Rumsfeld had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.”
Over two decades, the US spent more than $100 billion on nation building projects in Afghanistan. The amount does not include military spending. According to Brown University’s Cost of War project estimates, the cost of War on Terror in Afghanistan has reached $2.313 trillion. The US taxpayers will have to keep paying for retired and disabled veterans for decades. The total money spent of War on Terror around the world is about $8 trillion. The number of causalities has been estimated to be about 900,000.
The vague and expansive nation-building project overshadowed the US strategic objectives. It included building roads, bridges and schools. The US went on to spend its taxpayers’ money on electrification, hiring, training and arming a whole new Afghan army and police force and so on. It spent money on projects like raising cashmere goats in Afghanistan.
Over two decades, the US spent more than $100 billion on nation building projects in Afghanistan. The amount does not include military spending. According to Brown University’s Cost of War project estimates, the cost of War on Terror in Afghanistan has reached $2.313 trillion. The US taxpayers will have to keep paying for retired and disabled veterans for decades. The total money spent of War on Terror around the world is about $8 trillions. The number of causalities has been estimated to be about 900,000.
Repeatedly, the US political and military leaders boasted about the readiness of the Afghan army. In August 2021, however, it collapsed like a house of cards and the leadership fled the country. The Taliban, who took over the country, inherited no debt.
Arguably, the world is far less secure today as compared to September 10, 2001. The War on Terror ushered in an inexorable mayhem in the Middle East. After the fall of Baghdad, Iraq witnessed a long and bloody sectarian conflict and the complicated Kurdish question got even more complicated.
The Arab Spring, initially welcomed as a breath of fresh air, failed miserably with Libya falling to chaos and Egyptian democratisation reversed in about a year. Syria fell to civil war, ruining most of the infrastructure around the country, killing about half a million people, and displacing more than 13 million.
Tunisia, the only country to have ‘successfully’ democratised, has fallen back to the authoritarian playbook of the Arab world. The war in Yemen has expanded the battlefield in the region even further, displacing another 3 million people in the region. The wave after wave of immigrants has reached Europe, complicating the socio-economic issues even further. Though the ISIS has been shrunken, the danger of terrorism has not abated to a satisfactory level.
For Pakistan, the consequences of the War on Terror have been huge. Till 2018, the country had lost more than $126 billion in physical infrastructure, foreign investment, and industrial output. As the war ends, the total losses have been estimated to be about $150 billion. The country also lost more than 70,000 people including more than 7,700 security force personnel. As Taliban return to power and consolidate, new threats are emerging from Afghan soil - including the rise of the TTP and its alliance with the ISIS. The nexus is a new grave threat to the security of Pakistan. The country faces grave challenges and needs political stability. It’s time to act fast.
The writer is a lecturer at Texas A&M University, USA. He can be approached at firstname.lastname@example.org