The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion

The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion

The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion

From the beginning, the War on Terror merged red-hot vengeance with calculated opportunism. Millions are still paying the price.


The Taliban observed the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in startling fashion. Within a week of the United States’ announcement that it would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan on September 11, the Taliban had taken over large parts of the country, and on August 15, the capital city of Kabul fell. The speed was astonishing, the strategic acumen remarkable: a 20-year occupation rolled up in a week, as the puppet armies disintegrated. The puppet president hopped a helicopter to Uzbekistan, then a jet to the United Arab Emirates. It was a huge blow to the American empire and its underling states. No amount of spin can cover up this debacle.

A little more than a year before the 9/11 attacks, Chalmers Johnson, the West Coast historian and onetime supporter of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and a CIA consultant to boot, published a prescient book titled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. The book, which was virtually ignored when first published but later became a best seller, reads as both an eerie prologue and searing epitaph for the past 20 years. “Blowback,” as Johnson warned,

is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown. Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within the United States.

Twenty-four hours after that blowback stunned the planet on 9/11, with sympathy messages pouring in from every capital—including Havana—the recently deceased war criminal Donald Rumsfeld declared at a meeting of the National Security Council that recalcitrant states, regardless of their involvement in 9/11, should pay the price. Accordingly, he suggested, “Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just Al Qaeda?” The next day, Paul Wolfowitz, the No. 2 at the Department of Defense, amplified this message by urging a “broad and sustained campaign” that would include “ending states who sponsor terrorism.” Within a week, the Great Decider himself, George W. Bush, had greenlighted an all-out war: “Let’s hit them hard. We want to signal this is a change from the past. We want to cause other countries like Syria and Iran to change their view.”

Then the usual minions stepped in. Interviewed by David Remnick for The New Yorker, Dennis Ross, the US director of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” was insistent: “We can’t just do the usual thing—bomb a few targets, if it turns out to be Osama Bin Laden. If we respond the same old way, nothing will change.” Not to be outdone, the neocon Charles Krauthammer defended the invasion of Afghanistan two weeks later in his Washington Post column: “We are fighting because the bastards killed 5,000 [sic] of our people, and if we do not kill them, they are going to kill us again. This is a war of revenge and deterrence…. The liberationist talk must therefore be for foreign consumption.”

Notably, these “bastards” and “enemies” did not include Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two countries from which most of the 9/11 terrorists hailed. For years, wealthy Saudis had provided “fertile fund-raising ground” for Al Qaeda, according to none other than The 9/11 Commission Report. They had, in some cases, grown up with bin Laden, whose father was a habitué of their palaces and had founded the construction firm that built some of them. During an early NSC discussion, an attack on Iraq was considered, but Bush, Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney finally opted for a crude war of revenge against Afghanistan, where bin Laden and others in Al Qaeda’s leadership were lodged courtesy of the Taliban government, which itself had been maneuvered into place by the Pakistani military with the approval of the United States in 1994, several years after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops.

The Taliban were quite prepared to hand over their guests to the United States, but they needed a fig leaf and asked politely for evidence, some proof of Al Qaeda’s involvement. The White House was in no mood for legal niceties. A short delay was permitted to enable Pakistan to withdraw its military personnel from Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom commenced in October 2001. The Taliban, on Pakistani military advice, mounted a paltry resistance. Their one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, was last reported fleeing a central Afghan village on a motorbike, like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. When US troops finally reached Al Qaeda’s hideout in the caves of Tora Bora, the leadership had fled. Both Omar and bin Laden, plus their crews, found refuge in Pakistan, where the country’s military leaders advised the Taliban to bide its time. The US and all its NATO allies, as well as Russia and China (good friends at the time), backed the war and the occupation of Afghanistan—the Russians, no doubt, with an element of schadenfreude.

Twenty years later, the grim, bloody balance sheet of not responding “the same old way” speaks for itself. Six wars, millions killed, trillions wasted, and a plague of suffering and trauma inflicted on the Muslim world, accelerating a tidal wave of refugees that has created panic in the European Union and resulted in a huge increase of votes for far-right parties—which in turn has pushed an already extreme political center further to the right. Islamophobia, promoted by politicians of every stripe in the West, is now embedded in Western culture.

Oh may no more a foreign master’s rage / With wrongs yet legal, curse a future age!” wrote Alexander Pope at the dawn of the 18th century. Three hundred years later, the foreign master has withdrawn its forces, admitting defeat, with the full realization that the Taliban would soon be back in power. The war has been a huge political and military catastrophe for the US and its NATO camp followers. “Freedom” did not endure. The Taliban, which controlled three-quarters of the country on the eve of the US invasion, now control all of it.

History is only modestly helpful for anticipating what happens next. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a weak pro-Moscow regime managed to hold on to Kabul for some years before it was toppled, with US support, and replaced by warring factions of the mujahideen. In 1994, the US gave the go-ahead to a Pakistani-led Taliban intervention. Two years later, the Taliban took over Kabul.

The difference today is that there is no armed Cold War enemy as far as the US is concerned. The Taliban, once Washington’s friend, then an enemy, is now willing to be friends again. After all, the two have been talking for over a decade.

Meanwhile, in July, a senior Taliban delegation visited China to pledge that Afghan soil would never again be used as a base to attack China and, no doubt, to discuss future trade and investment plans. Make no mistake, Beijing will replace Washington as the primary foreign influence in Afghanistan. Since China enjoys warm relations with Iran, we can hope that it will discourage rivalries between the minority Hazaras and the majority Pashtuns that might lead to bloodshed. Russia, for its part, will use its influence with other minorities to avoid the kind of civil war that broke out after the Soviet withdrawal. No outside power appears to want a repeat of that today. The US prefers to exercise direct control via drones and bombing raids, as it did a day after confirming the withdrawal from Afghanistan—to “buy time” for the Afghan government, we were informed—and as it did at least twice since the deadly ISIS-K airport attacks.

Given that the Taliban has taken up residence in the presidential palace in Kabul, what the US should do, together with its NATO allies, is grant refuge and citizenship to all Afghans who want to leave the country: a tiny reparation for an unnecessary war. Apart from that, the US should leave the country well alone. Real change can come only from within Afghanistan. It will take time, but it’s better than an invasion by a major power. It’s too early to say how this will all pan out; we’ll know better in six months.

On February 15, 2003, knowing what was next and harboring few illusions about their leaders, as many as 14 million people marched on all seven continents against the impending war in Iraq. Sanctions had already crippled the country, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children (as many as half a million, according to a 1995 Lancet analysis), a price that Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, had said was “worth paying.” The largest demonstrations were in Rome (2.5 million), Madrid (1.5 million), and London (1.5 million), while hundreds of thousands marched in New York and Los Angeles, along with huge assemblies in most state capitals.

The largest gathering for peace ever seen in global history was ignored by Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and their cronies. Iraq was pulverized and its leader subjected to a judicial lynching. Torture by US soldiers (both men and women) was widespread, and triumphal rape pics were bandied about. For many, this was the face of Western civilization. At least half a million Iraqis died in the war. Baghdad’s museums were looted, and the social infrastructure of the country was devastated by bombing raids. These were war crimes, but they were “our” war crimes, and so they were ignored, disregarding the judgments at Nuremberg after the Second World War. In the War on Terror, it’s always open season: shoot to kill, no trials necessary, and indefinite imprisonment. Legal and moral values (“our way of life”) ceased to exist. Depleted uranium munitions were deployed in Iraq and, later, in Syria.

Even before the war, of course, the United States had played fast and loose with international legal norms. The sanctions on Iraq—which were imposed in 1990, just before Bush I’s Gulf War, and remained until Bush II’s invasion—constituted a war crime on their own. The target was the civilian population; the goal was to incite a spontaneous popular uprising. A senior British civil servant, Carne Ross, testified before a parliamentary select committee in 2007 and admitted:

The weight of evidence clearly indicates that sanctions caused massive human suffering among ordinary Iraqis, particularly children. We, the US and UK governments, were the primary engineers and offenders of sanctions and were well aware of the evidence at the time but we largely ignored it and blamed it on the Saddam government….

Real history moves deep within the memory of a people but is always an obstacle to imperial fantasists. There is now near-universal agreement that the Western occupation of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster—first for the people of Iraq, second for the soldiers sent by scoundrel politicians to die in a foreign land. The grammar of deceit utilized by Bush, Blair, and sundry neocon/neolib apologists to justify the war has lost all credibility. Despite the embedded journalists and nonstop propaganda, the bloody images refuse to go away; the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops was the only meaningful solution. While the US has supposedly withdrawn, its planes are used occasionally to bomb the country. A ghoulish reminder that if the Iraqi government misbehaves, punishments will be forthcoming.

Libya, despite its vast oil wealth, was another story, but with its own grisly ending. Unlike the leaders of the Iraqi and Syrian Baath parties, Moammar Gadhafi had balked at constructing a proper social infrastructure, which would have gone a long way toward dissolving tribal loyalties. He had given up on his nuclear program in return for Western recognition and was feted in Western capitals. His son secured his PhD at the London School of Economics—notwithstanding claims of plagiarism—after which a generous donation was promptly bestowed on the school. He also reportedly provided funds for Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in France.

Gadhafi’s vices, eccentricities, and more serious failings were on display in February 2011, during an Arab Spring–linked uprising. He thought his new friends in the West would back him. The opposite was the case: They had decided to get rid of him, and the opportunity offered itself. But the story told by military humanitarians to justify US intervention—that Gadhafi was bent on massacring his people—was based in large part on an Al Jazeera report that the Libyan Air Force was strafing demonstrators. This turned out to be a fiction, according to congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen. Nor were there indiscriminate, large-scale massacres in the cities of Misrata, Zawiya, and Ajdabiya when government forces retook them. Gadhafi’s warning on March 17 that his forces would show “no mercy” explicitly referred to the armed rebels in Benghazi, but he offered amnesty and an escape route to Egypt for those who laid down their weapons. Brutal though Gadhafi’s regime was, there is scant evidence that NATO’s bombardment prevented “genocide” or “another Rwanda” or, as President Obama put it, “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

Unsurprisingly, there has never been a reliable accounting of civilians killed during the six-month bombing campaign. The more conservative estimates place the collective death toll—civilians, rebels, Gadhafi’s fighters—at around 8,000. But an academic from SOAS University of London, who had been advising the Foreign Office, placed the toll closer to 20,000 to 30,000 people. NATO’s planes did not protect civilians as they targeted Gadhafi’s forces. The dictator was captured, tortured, and mob-lynched. Ever sensitive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “We came. We saw. He died.” Pity. In other circumstances, Gadhafi might well have funded the Clinton Foundation.

After the collapse of an absurdist pro-business neoliberal government—led initially by a Libyan exile in Alabama—post-Gadhafi Libya was taken over by a loose coalition of Islamist militias, including those linked to Al Qaeda. As in Iraq, the state had collapsed and a civil war commenced. Black Africans were expelled in large numbers and returned to their countries. Mali’s capital, Timbuktu, and much of the Sahel were taken over by “refugee militias.” The French sent in troops.

Meanwhile, there were more terrorist attacks: in London, in Paris, in Mumbai, in Islamabad. The War on Terror had failed on every level—at home as well as abroad. While the US military and its allies bombed and droned their way across foreign lands, their governments were busy waging war on civil liberties on domestic soil. From Guantánamo to the maximum-security Communication Management Units in US prisons, from secret surveillance programs to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, the United States has tracked and targeted its Muslim residents. Across the ocean, Britain launched its own sprawling “anti-terror” regime, including a program of indefinite detention within its state security prison, Belmarsh, where at least one prisoner was driven mad and transferred to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital.

Whistle-blowers who revealed the crimes in Iraq and elsewhere were severely punished. Chelsea Manning was pardoned, but Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of the surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency, had to flee the country. And Julian Assange remains in Belmarsh prison, wondering whether the British judicial system will send him to be entombed in a US security prison on the basis of a dangerous, precedent-setting charge of violating the Espionage Act.

Three months after Baghdad fell in 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave a speech at the White House congratulating Bush on the “impressive victory” but urging him not to stop. Forward to Damascus and Tehran: “It must be made clear…that their evil deeds cannot continue.”

Those two capitals remain safe, but Syria is broken and Iran sanctioned. Where will freedom and democracy strike next?

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy