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The striking failure of the US war on terror

Author: Kanwal Sibal
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: September 14, 2021
URL:       https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/us-war-on-terror-9-11-attack-7506891/

Kanwal Sibal writes: The gap between its stated objectives and the actual outcome is clear in the rise of terrorism and religious extremism in West Asia, Africa and South Asia.

9/11 set the stage for America’s “global war on terror”. The attacks by al Qaeda on September 11, 2001 against the military and economic symbols of the foremost global power were bound to trigger a global American response.

The attacks elicited outpourings of sympathy and solidarity worldwide, even from countries hostile to the US. The shocked realisation that well-organised terrorism could cause grand-scale mayhem anywhere must have sunk in. President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to speak to President George W Bush. China sent condolences. Cuba, Libya, North Korea as well as Syria’s Assad and Iranian leaders Khamenei and Khatami condemned the attacks.

Afghanistan was the first target of the war on terror, whose grandiose objectives as spelled out by the Bush administration were to defeat terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and destroy their organisations, end state sponsorship of terrorism, strengthen the international effort to combat terrorism, and abolish terrorist sanctuaries and havens. The Taliban regime, which harboured Osama, was ousted militarily.

In the heady phase of US unilateralism, it was used as a tool to achieve larger foreign policy goals in West Asia by eliminating leaders opposed to or no longer serving America’s geopolitical interests in the region, beginning with Saddam Hussein. Military action against Iraq in 2003 was also labelled as part of the war on terror. The Arab Spring phenomenon of 2011 got US backing in the hope that the urge for democracy in the Arab world would prove an antidote to religious extremism and terrorism in Arab society. The regime change in Libya and the bid to topple the Syrian regime in 2011 on mixed grounds of terrorism and human rights were products of this belief deriving from the mood and policies that 9/11 generated in the US.

However, the signal failure in Iraq and Afghanistan to do “nation building” on democratic foundations, the chaos in Libya and the havoc in Syria exposed the political and military limitations of the war on terror as an instrument of state power in eliminating non-state actors inspired by a pan-national ideology based on scriptural injunctions, cultural aversion and a deep sense of revenge for humiliations inflicted by the West. An upsurge in terrorism, civil conflict, refugee flows and unprincipled local compromises with extremism discredited the war on terror. President Barack Obama, in 2013, lowered his sights, discarded the war on terror phraseology, narrowing down the “boundless war on terror” to “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America”. This signified already that America’s anti-terrorism crusade would be limited primarily to protecting its own security, a view expressed more clearly by Trump. The unilateral retreat from Afghanistan broadly represents this reality.

Measured by its stated objectives and international consequences, the global war on terror has failed strikingly. Bin Laden’s elimination might have provided a trophy to display, but Islamist terrorism and religious extremism got a tremendous boost with the rise of the Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria, and after its elimination, the pronounced spread in Africa of extremist movements affiliated with the al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Islamist terrorism has viciously struck Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and has targeted Southeast Asia. Europe has suffered dramatic terrorist attacks and an influx of refugees, with political and social consequences marked by the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment and right-wing nationalist forces.

America’s post-9/11 war on terror impacted India’s interests unfavourably. The removal of autocratic but secular regimes in West Asia allowed extremist Islamist movements that were consciously suppressed to rise, leading to serious concerns in India, a victim of jihadi terrorism, about the fallout in the subcontinent.

Ironically, though, the emergence of the Islamic State and a reinvigorated Muslim Brotherhood has had the collateral effect of drawing the Gulf states such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, concerned about the danger posed to their polities by these ideologies, closer to India. America’s draconian sanctions on Iran, including for its alleged terrorist activities, have adversely affected our strategic as well as energy interests in Iran.

The gap between the objectives of America’s war on terror and actual achievement is clear in our region. The terrorists have neither been defeated nor their organisations destroyed, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Despite Pakistan’s state sponsorship of terrorism, not only against India but also against US forces in Afghanistan, the US has looked to Pakistan to facilitate its withdrawal from Afghanistan through its Taliban links, allowing it in the process to obtain its longed for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India. The US has failed to “abolish terrorist sanctuaries and havens” in Pakistan, or to compel an unwilling Pakistan to act against the Haqqani group, which now controls Afghanistan’s interior ministry. Ironically, whereas the US acted to destroy the Islamic State in West Asia, it has handed over a state to the Taliban, with the new Afghanistan government liberally composed of UN-designated terrorists. Ironically, Islamist extremists and terrorists have taken over a country without any democratic process with the consent of an America committed to democratic values.

As against all these negative realities, India-US counter-terrorism cooperation has productively expanded in important areas. The US recognition of the LeT, JeM, HuM as terrorist groups, and its references to “cross-border terrorism” have been diplomatically helpful, but this has not balanced the far larger unpunished space given to Pakistan despite its terrorist affiliations.

The US war on terror has been selective, marred by double standards, equivocations and geopolitical motives. The stated goal was not to make only America safe, but eliminate the terrorist threat globally as part of America’s leadership role. The way it has withdrawn from Afghanistan has created doubts on whether it will honour its commitments elsewhere, leading countries to hedge. Europe sees the withdrawal as a foreign policy disaster for the western alliance. India is less safe with the Taliban-Pakistan takeover of Afghanistan under the accommodating umbrella of the US.


-This column first appeared in the print edition on September 14, 2021 under the title ‘War and terror’. The writer is a former foreign secretary
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