Lessons Unlearnt

America has always fought its war on terror selectively, and now Joe Biden has delivered a victory for global jihad

 Brahma Chellaney  | OPEN magazine

Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid makes his first-ever public appearance at a press conference in Kabul, August 17 (Photo: Getty Images)

THE UNPARALLELED TERRORIST attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the US gave birth to the American-led global war on terror. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the unprecedented 9/11 attacks. Yet, two decades later, it is apparent that the war on terror has been remarkably ineffective, as the recent terrorist takeover of Afghanistan highlights.

Much before US President Joe Biden’s blunder in enabling the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, the war on terror had already gone astray. Over the past 20 years, the number of terrorism-related casualties has increased globally. Terror has spread geographically, with new regions being battered by the scourge of violent extremism. And national expenditures on combating terrorism, from North America and Europe to Asia, have risen sharply.

In fact, it has been in the period since 9/11 that India has suffered a series of major terrorist strikes. The terrorist assaults on the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Parliament occurred within weeks of 9/11. The 2008 Mumbai massacre was India’s equivalent of 9/11, affecting the Indian psyche more deeply than any other attack.

Globally, the past two decades have largely been a wasted period in combating the menace of terrorism: Instead of containing terrorism, the war on terror has generated greater insecurity in several parts of the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia. “The war has been long and complex and horrific and unsuccessful,” in the words of Brown University’s Catherine Lutz, who has been tracking the costs of America’s counterterrorism operations across the world.

What explains the failure of the US-led war on terror to achieve tangible results? Simply put, the war’s increasing politicisation has effectively stymied any possibility of achieving lasting success.

GEOPOLITICS DRIVES COUNTERTERRORISM

The US under successive presidents has turned the war on terror into a geopolitical instrument to advance narrow interests, instead of focusing on rooting out all terrorist groups wherever they exist. It is this approach that has led to the US defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. This defeat was drenched in the blood of betrayal: America ditched its ally—the elected Afghan government—and got into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists (the Taliban), culminating in its humiliating rout.

The only way to combat terrorism is through vigorous, proactive and pre-emptive actions, without seeking to differentiate between good terrorists and bad terrorists. Also, talking tough but doing little in action only emboldens terrorists and their sponsors.

The US, unfortunately, has never adopted a forward-looking approach to containing international terrorism. It has been more concerned about protecting its own interests, including its homeland, than about winning the larger war against terrorism. It has entered into deals with terrorist groups operating against its own regional allies and partners.

Yet it has long maintained the pretence that it does not negotiate with terrorists. In 2008, then US Vice President Dick Cheney even declared, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” But while regurgitating the line that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” the US has quietly done the opposite in practice, as President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s current outreach to that militia underscore.

The February 2020 Doha deal between the US and the Taliban showed that Washington not only negotiates with terrorists, but also clinches an agreement with much fanfare.

Even before the Doha deal, the US traded three leading Taliban terrorists, including Anas Haqqani (son of the Haqqani network’s founder), for two captured Westerners in November 2019. Likewise, in 2014, it freed five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for the release of a captured US Army sergeant. The late American Senator, John McCain, had called the five released detainees “the hardest of the hardcore.”

Despite America’s obsession with counterterrorism, it has always waged its war on terror selectively. It has shielded client nations even if they have bankrolled or sponsored transnational terrorism, and gone after countries that have defiantly stood their ground against Washington.

This is apparent from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which today includes only four countries—Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. These four have been targeted for geopolitical reasons. Such has been the arbitrariness that the US identified Cuba out of the blue as a state sponsor of terrorism in January this year, after earlier dropping Sudan from its list.

A Taliban member points his gun at protestors outside the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, September 7 (Photo: Reuters)

The main financiers of violent Islamists, by Washington’s own admission, are US allies (Saudi Arabia and the other oil sheikhdoms). In fact, President Trump once called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” And another US ally, Pakistan, has long served as the main international sanctuary of Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorists like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Thanks to WikiLeaks disclosures, we know that US officials have privately acknowledged that the terrorism problem is largely tied to American allies. Yet successive US governments have employed the war on terror as a geopolitical tool, instead of focusing on reining in America’s renegade allies.

Given the number of U.N.-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?

Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, as a tacit or overt sponsor of violent extremists and terrorist groups, has long acted as the enabler of transnational terrorism. No other intelligence agency in the world has promoted international terrorism to the extent ISI has done over more than four decades.

Yet the US has added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations but not ISI, with which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has sustained a longstanding relationship. ISI itself is part of a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cosy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as President Trump acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Nothing better illustrates the politicisation of the global war on terror than the fact that the US government never added the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban to the State Department’s annual list  of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This outfit killed more than 2,000 American soldiers between 2001 and 2021. The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan may have brought shame and humiliation to the US, yet today the Biden administration, paradoxically, is courting this militia that is responsible for so many American deaths.

Take another example: Pakistan engineered the US rout in Afghanistan through its proxy, yet Biden is unlikely to revoke the “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) status enjoyed by that country. Sixteen other countries, including Japan, Australia and Israel but not India, have the MNNA status, which carries security benefits under American law. Nor is Biden likely to impose any financial or diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan.

It is thus no wonder that terrorism has virtually become our new normal. After the terrorist capture of Afghanistan, the international counterterrorism challenges are bound to escalate.

SURRENDER IN AFGHANISTAN

Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban and his administration’s ongoing efforts to legitimise the new terrorist regime in Kabul have unravelled whatever was left of the American-led global war on terror. Given the number of United Nations-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?

Even the head of the Taliban regime, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is on the UN blacklist. In fact, Hassan Akhund oversaw the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001. And with the FBI-wanted Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister, the notorious Haqqani network—and by extension Pakistan’s ISI agency—will be in charge of Afghanistan’s internal security. So much for the talk that the Taliban have changed!

Biden, however, has defiantly refused to offer any sort of mea culpa for his Afghan surrender and instead repeatedly attempted to rationalise his precipitous and ill-planned military withdrawal, which set in motion developments beyond the control of the US or the elected Afghan government. Lost in such defiance is Biden’s admission that Afghanistan is not a one-off decision. Rather, according to him, it represents a fundamental readjustment of America’s strategic objectives under his leadership.

“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden declared in his August 31st address to the nation. The statement, reinforced by his recent pledge to withdraw from Iraq this year, raises nagging questions whether the US is faltering and retreating from its global commitments.

Biden’s Afghan disaster and new foreign-policy vision, while emboldening America’s adversaries, are likely to spur US allies to hedge, given that US objectives and resolve now seem suspect. Ukraine is worried Biden will abandon it the way he ditched the Afghan government. And Taiwan is concerned that Biden’s blunder could embolden Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to launch a lightning attack to forcibly absorb the island democracy of 24 million people. Those worries prompted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to declare, “It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”

What stands out, however, is the huge victory for global jihad that Biden has helped deliver. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the US force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor left office.

That small US force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Since the US combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31st, 2014, Afghan soldiers, not American troops, had been on the frontlines, with the residual US force playing only a supporting role.

Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”

An unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

Biden, however, refused to listen to any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on US and NATO capabilities—from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.

Biden’s Afghan surrender occurred just months after he took office, suggesting that this is unlikely to be the last blunder of his presidency. But the US and its Western allies are located far from Afghanistan. It is next-door India that will likely bear the brunt of the strategic fallout from Pakistan’s success in Afghanistan.

An emboldened Pakistani military establishment is bound to use its ISI agency to keep India off balance in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Cadres of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Badr, which are all fronts for ISI, are likely to create greater trouble for India in Jammu and Kashmir and possibly elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the Biden administration has been drawing false distinctions between the Taliban, Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and ISIS-K. In reality, these groups are interlinked. For example, the Taliban and Al Qaeda members are tied by close personal relationships and intermarriage, and Al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to every Taliban leader since the time ISI created the Taliban in the mid-1990s, according to terrorism expert Seth G Jones.

ISI has used the Haqqani network to provide cadres to ISIS-K so as to help establish plausible deniability in terror attacks. As for the Taliban, their longstanding ties with Al Qaeda are reflected in the fact that, since Kabul’s fall, Taliban spokesmen have not only refused to utter a critical word about Al Qaeda, but also have claimed that there is “no proof” that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

In October 2015, US forces under General John F Campbell uncovered in Kandahar province the largest Al Qaeda base discovered anywhere in the world (75 square kilometres in size), where Al Qaeda and the Taliban were found training and operating together. According to a recent UN Security Council report, “the Taliban and Al Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Haqqani network.

Taliban fighters after taking over the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, September 6 (Photo: Getty Images)

Against this background, the Taliban must be deterred, not emboldened. But the Biden administration, not content with having indirectly armed the Taliban with billions of dollars worth of US-made weapons, is seeking to build a partnership with this terrorist militia.

In the first ever case of a terrorist organisation acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of US-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The most sophisticated weapons probably have already been transported to Pakistan for likely deployment against India. Taliban patrols are now using some of the other US-made weapons. The Taliban could transfer some weapons to Pakistani jihadists operating from Afghanistan.

Biden, seeking to blunt the torrent of bipartisan criticism at home, has bragged that he ended “the longest war in American history”. With Afghanistan now set to become a haven for transnational terrorists, the US role has merely paused. But the damage to America’s credibility and the global war on terror cannot be undone.

NEGLECTED LESSONS OF 9/11

The Afghanistan war did not start in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. As Columbia University’s Jeffery Sachs has explained, “The Afghanistan war started 42 years ago, in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter’s administration covertly supported Islamic jihadists to fight a Soviet-backed regime. Soon, the CIA-backed mujahideen helped to provoke a Soviet invasion, trapping the Soviet Union in a debilitating conflict, while pushing Afghanistan into what became a forty-year-long downward spiral of violence and bloodshed.”

With the 9/11 attacks, however, the chickens came home to roost. The attacks profoundly shook the US. But did the US draw the appropriate lessons from 9/11 and halt further training and arming of jihadists by CIA?

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton candidly said in an ABC News interview in November 2010 that the US was paying the price for creating Al Qaeda. “Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the mujahideen force against the Soviet Union. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And then when we finally saw the end of the Soviet Army crossing back out of Afghanistan, we all breathed a sigh of relief and said, okay, fine, we’re out of there. And it didn’t work out so well for us,” she said.

Yet, less than a year after that interview, then-US President Barack Obama, with Hillary Clinton’s active encouragement, helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Obama also started an air war in Syria—his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and one that consumed his remaining term in office.

Less known is that the Obama-ordered CIA covert war in Syria ended up creating ISIS, even if inadvertently. As Trump put it, “Obama and Hillary created ISIS.”

Against this background, is it any surprise that in the period since America launched the global war on terror in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, the scourge of international terrorism has only spread deeper and wider in the world? Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. And once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as Pakistan has remained “ground zero” for the international terrorist threat.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist

The lessons of 9/11 were obvious, but successive US governments ignored them. The Biden administration is doing the same.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political convenience and narrow objectives. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist. The US cannot afford to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists and between those who threaten its security and those who threaten others. The viper reared against one country is a viper against others.

A second lesson is not to turn the war against terrorism into a geopolitical battle to serve one’s strategic interests while ignoring the interests of others, including allies and strategic partners. After launching the global war on terror, President Bush used it to expand US military, diplomatic and energy interests in an unprecedented manner and position American forces in the largest array of nations since World War II—all in the name of fighting terror.

Another lesson is that the problem of and solution to terrorism are linked. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The terrorism-breeding swamps can never be fully drained so long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalised and democratised.