Assess whether the militarization of the US response to 9/11 (the creation of
the so-called „Global War on Terror”) was and remains a fundamental strategic error.
By Stefan Vedder
In his address to the congress on 20.09.2001 George W. Bush described the terrorist attacks of September, 11 as “an act of war” and promptly proclaimed the “war on terror” with “a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them” being the enemy. (Bush, 2001). In the subsequent years the United States have started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are today, eight respectively, roughly seven years later, not yet decisively won. The terrorists’ capacity to execute devastating attacks has apparently not sustainably diminished given the numerous devastating attacks on US allies. At least the Bali (2002) and London (2005) bombings were directly attributed to Al Qaeda by President Obama (2009). The militarization of the US response to 9/11 has in several aspects proven not only to be inappropriate but even counterproductive in the struggle against international terrorism.
To understand the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11 the unprecedented extent of the attacks and its impact on the United States must be examined a bit deeper. Roughly 3.000 people had been killed in a single terrorist attack. During the last 30 years, international terrorism had caused around 500 deaths annually (Andreani, 2004/2005: p.32). To the United States, furthermore, the attack only marked the second attack on American soil after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Most horrifying, however, was the fact that the attackers did not aim at military facilities but purely at civilians (Bush, 2001). The public in the USA, initially petrified given the unprecedented and barbarian assault, was not willing to accept an incapability to act and demanded an immediate and resolute military response (An- dreäni, 2004/2005, p.32). So, soon after the attacks George Bush proclaimed the aim to get hold of Al Qaeda’s key leaders, shut down the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime after it presented itself reluctant to meet the US demands (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2004: 330-333).
The fact that the United States desired an immediate response to the attacks averted an comprehensive invasion of Afghanistan with US ground troops for what months of preparation would had been necessary (Rothstein, 2006: 1-4; Franks, 2004: 250-251). Instead the US largely confined themselves to employ Special Forces and air power in order to support local combatants in the north and south of the country who fought the ruling Taliban (Biddle, 2005/2006: 161).
Some consider military actions against terrorists an appropriate means if they are located in so called “rogue states” or “failed states”. In rogue states the local government might not be willing, whereas in failed states the government might not be able to effectively fight the terrorists. Since Afghanistan - as it presented itself during the Taliban rule - can be seen as a mixture of both, the military actions conducted by the United States could somehow be considered a necessity. By stressing “that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organisers and supporters of these acts, will be held accountable” the UN Security Council implicitly legitimized a military response (Andreani, 2004/2005, pp. 38-39). But even if one might consider the decision to strike military against Afghanistan legitimate and appropriate - given the unwillingness of the Taliban to cooperate - at least the strategy employed in the conduct of the war - by hindsight - turns out to be seriously deficient. The decision to rely mainly on the poorly equipped local troops, which were - beyond that - outnumbered by the Taliban and Al Qaeda at least by two (Franks, 2004: 261) allowed many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to flee to Pakistan (Lambeth, 2005: 149-154). Likewise the US did not manage to capture or kill key Al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and Aiman Al Zawahiri. But capturing key political members of a terrorist organization is crucial since these organizations are likely to lose their cohesion without such figures (Finlan, 2003: 95).
As Barack Obama stated in his 01.12.2009 speech, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. The Afghan government is “hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an underdeveloped economy, and insufficient security forces” whereas al Qaeda’s leadership “established a safe haven” in Pakistan after escaping into it in 2001 and 2002. The ]Taliban and al Qaeda “seek an overthrow of the Afghan government” while “engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people” (Obama, 2009). The dangerous situation in Pakistan was once again shown on 01.01.2010 when more than 90 people got killed in a suicide attack in the north-west of the country (BBC News, 2010). In his speech, Obama recognized “the fundamental connection between the war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan” (2009). With the situation in Pakistan in mind observers assess that even if Afghanistan was pacified - what circumstances do not suggest at the moment - the US would face “the same problem it did before 9/11” because “those attacks could just as easily have been planned from Pakistan” (Mearsheimer, 2009/2010: 25). But that the terrorists’ safe haven has shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan does not simply mean that the problem has geographically moved. The situation indeed has severely exacerbated. It is to be seen as a fundamental difference if the terrorists operate under the shelter of an archaic regime with hardly any significant military power or if they are establishing a safe haven within the territory of a nuclear power posing the threat to upset the government and that the terrorists one day - by some means or other - might acquire WMD.
There are, however, two aspects of the intervention in Afghanistan that can be considered sustainably successful in the struggle against international terrorist networks. With Afghanistan the terrorists lost a base they could untroubledly use for training their combatants and organizing their plans. Furthermore, by showing the resolve to proceed military against regimes that overtly shelter terrorists the willingness among states to do so was certainly diminished after the war in Afghanistan (Andreani, 2004/2005: 39; Heymann, 2003: 15). Other putative benefits some had attributed to the war must now, with hindsight, be seen in a different light. Fears that 9/11 might have proven US’ “inability to retaliate effectively”, which would have increased “enthusiasm for violent action in any pool of people deeply hostile to the United States”, were allegedly swept away by the “successful war in Afghanistan” (He y- mann, 2003: 15-16). Now, eight years after the fall of the Taliban this “success” is to be questioned. In the years following the end of the “main hostilities” the strength of the Taliban was continously increasing (Giustozzi, 2007: 35) and the US recently felt impelled to announce a significant troop surge.
So, even if a military response towards Afghanistan was somewhat justified - given the Taliban’s reluctance to meet U.S. demands - and might even be considered necessary, the conduct of the war led to largely arguable results and proved to have been counterproductive in the fight against terrorism, especially given the precarious situation now established in Pakistan. As Mearsheimer summarizes it: “The war in Afghanistan has done little to make Americans safer at home” (2009/2010: 25).
Given Bush’s continually bellicose rhetoric and his repeated remarks that Afghanistan was only the beginning of the “war on terror” (Bush, 2001 and 2002), further US military actions were to be feared. So, in March, 2003 the US military started an invasion of Iraq. Though this war was primarily justified with the claim that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destructions, former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld left no doubt that the decision to invade the country was based on the fact that the situation in Iraq was assessed “in a dramatic new light - through the prism of our experience on 9/11” (Rumsfeld as quoted in Litwak, 2007: 1). Apparently immediately after 9/11 the Bush administration arrived at the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq - convinced that containment and deterrence no longer suit as means to handle Iraq given the new vulnerability the United States had experienced with the attacks on 9/11 (Litwak, 2007: 138-139). The resolution of the US Congress that authorized the use of armed forces against Iraq states the threat that Iraq might “provide [weapons of mass destruction] to international terrorists” (US Congress, 2002). In the run-up to the invasion the Bush administration frantically but unsuccessfully tried to find evidences linking Iraq‟s regime to Al Qaeda (Woodward, 2004: 292). Saddam Hussein‟s Iraq was in fact so far apart from connections to Al Qaeda that some scholars are even reluctant to consider it seriously a contribution to the “war on terror” (see, for example Howard, 2006/2007: 9). Whereas there has been no evidence for links to international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda the US invasion has – according to observers – lured terrorists into the country turning Iraq into a “field of jihad” (Stevenson, 2006: 37). The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had caused a dramatic insurgency and a civil-war-like situation in the subsequent years. Instead of expecting a raging insurgency the US military had optimistically assumed that the widespread averseness against Saddam Husseins‟s rule would translate into support for a temporary American occupation (Hendrickson and Tucker, 2005: 7). Some observers trace the outcome of the war mainly back to insufficient numbers and wrong kinds of troops employed by the US (Diamond, 2004: 34).