Afghanistan and the Failed War on Terrorism – review


Afghanistan is not a huge fiasco just because we in the West have pulled out. We couldn’t stay there forever. But this is indeed one of the epic proportions because our retreat is typical of a much larger flop, called the “War on Terror”. Of course, not everything is bad. Twenty years after September 11, the United States eliminated Osama bin Laden; seriously diminished al Qaeda’s fundraising abilities; carried out dozens of high-profile targeted assassinations; and, more importantly, dramatically reduced the chances of further 9/11 events taking place on American soil. These objectives have been successfully achieved.

If we look at the larger picture, however, we have failed. Our initial strategy – if we had one at the start – had more realistic goals. So what went wrong? The initial premises quickly turned into a borderless war against al Qaeda and others, toppling hostile governments, imposing democracy, carrying out peacekeeping, state building and training of local forces. Dragged into the Afghan and Iraqi quagmires, we panicked. At that point, as Audrey Cronin argues, we returned to what we know best: military tactics. Drone campaigns, legally questionable targeted assassinations and countless accusations of human rights violations did the rest, however.

After 20 years, it can be said that the results have for the most part been disastrous. Wanting to prevent 9/11, we destabilized entire countries – causing dozens of 9/11. And in doing so, we weren’t that efficient either. We only fought terrorism to see jihadist groups thrive around the world. Two decades later, al-Qaeda still permeates the Sahel, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Boko Haram and al Shabab continue to wreak havoc in several African countries. ISIS even managed to establish its own caliphate while terrorizing London, Paris and Brussels. Even our battle for hearts and minds has been weak. Anti-Western sentiment swelled, as the image of the West and America as pillars of democratic values ​​collapsed.

Speaking of which, things at home have deteriorated as well. In the name of security, anti-terrorism laws have often taken precedence over civil rights – governments and private companies spying on their citizens. Entire communities, mostly Muslims, have become suspect, suffering from ethnic profiling and marginalization. At the same time, fear of terrorism has facilitated the rise of populism in many countries, increasing social division. In some cases, poisonous accounts have led to right-wing terrorism, which has become a vital threat to US national security. With the rise of polarization, racism and domestic terrorism, it became clear that the war on terror had taken its toll on us as well.

In this context, Afghanistan is only the mirror of our failure. We started chasing Osama bin Laden, but ended up imposing our views on a whole country. Without a clear plan, we have poured in resources and personnel. Billions of billions later, corruption remained rampant, local governments governed poorly, and resentment grew. In the end, the Taliban won, and the FBI’s most wanted terrorist is the country’s Home Secretary. While Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K are still there, some fear that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorists or inspire acts of terrorism in the West. While the latter hastily evacuated its citizens, other regional actors, including China, Russia and Iran, are likely to fill the void.
And yet, perhaps our biggest flaw is related to our so-called values. We fight terrorism because we do not support political violence endangering democracy and fundamental freedoms. But in Afghanistan, we have it all wrong. Not only have we misunderstood the complex nature of the country and its history; we (arguably) tried to impose democracy, we were disappointed to realize it wasn’t working, and then we left. We left. While we saved many, we left thousands to their fate. Now, how can we make sure that gender and minority rights are protected in a Taliban ruled Afghanistan? How credible can we be? What message are we sending? Can we give up our values ​​if things go wrong? Do we still know what our values ​​are – have we ever had values?

I still believe that the West and its allies must continue to fight terrorism. If we put our minds together, we can make things better. In addition to essential strategic thinking, we need to ask ourselves who we really are. “Know the enemy, know yourself,” said Sun Tzu. But I fear that this can only be achieved through honest and painful examination of conscience. Are we ready for this?

The writer is a lecturer in the Defense Studies Department “Challenges to the International Order” at King’s College London.

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