20th anniversary of 9/11: War & terror are both alive and well
America loves a good war. But it continues to collaborate with terror outfits and offshoots of al Qaeda. Not surprisingly, the war on terror has done little to make the world safer
In the days leading to the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban was willing to offer anything to President George Bush if they were let off the hook. The US however wanted a spectacle for the domestic gallery. The attack by US and its NATO allies broke the back of Taliban in 2001-02 and others who survived surrendered or went back to civilian life. The then Pakistani government started handing over one al Qaeda operative after another to the US. By 2005, al Qaeda’s play was all but over in the region.
Continued US operations in rural Afghanistan not only gave Taliban a new lease of life, but it also turned common Afghans, who were fed up with the Taliban, to get fed up with the US and its puppet regime in Kabul too. By 2010 it was clear that the US policies in Afghanistan had revived and emboldened the Taliban and its victory was just a matter of time.
And no one realised it more than the US itself as they opened a back channel with the Taliban to ultimately seek a withdrawal and safe retreat. One would think such a misadventure would have taught a valuable lesson to the US security establishment. But against all sane advice, it first went after Iraq and then in 2011-2012 Syria presented yet another opportunity. Salafi/Wahhabi extremists started a resurrection that was quickly supported by US’ allies in the region, Qatar and Turkey. Other allies like Saudi Arabia and UAE joined soon. It was very clear that al Qaeda was involved but instead of reining in its allies, US started participating in the resurrection rather enthusiastically.
A massive propaganda campaign was unleashed trying to paint the extremists as rebels fighting the oppression of the Syrian State. A few years later when the collaboration with al Qaeda became difficult to hide, a new narrative was spun. This one said that the protests were “peaceful” and “localised” earlier and it was state repression that made it violent and brought in unsavoury elements like al Qaeda.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. This correspondent was reporting extensively from Syria in those early days as well and I can assure you that not only the protests were not peaceful; it also had the active participation of al Qaeda from the very beginning. There is video evidence of these early “peaceful” protests with banners asking Christians in Syria to go to Lebanon and Alawites to their graves. Other videos show protesters singing Nasheed (praise songs in Arabic) celebrating Osama Bin Laden.
Leaked memos sent by various US embassies and missions in the region point out how US’ allies openly supported al Qaeda in Syria— which was later rechristened Jabhat al Nusra after ISIS splintered from it—with men and material.
One such memo reads: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical groups in the region.”
And then there is this small matter of Blob—the foreign policy establishment in Washington DC that has a revolving door with arms companies and think tanks who are always enthusiastic about a new war. To President Obama’s credit, and the credit of Donald Trump, the White House wanted to tame this Blob but found the entire exercise frustrating. President Obama knew how the Blob was looking away when US’ allies in the region were arming both al Qaeda and the Islamic State but was unable to stop this
Noted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reported once in The Atlantic that “a widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as ‘Arab-occupied territory’.”
If that was not enough, new enemies were concocted out of thin air. Take for example Eritrea. EPLF, a Marxist-Leninist group ruling Eritrea, was not only accused of but sanctioned for its alleged support to al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab group in the Horn of Africa region. The United States was at the forefront of this sanctions campaign. In truth, EPLF was an effective bulwark against groups like Al Shabaab in the region.
The US turned logic on its head and used its diplomatic clout to sanction Eritrea. Consequently, an effective bulwark was undermined and within a few years, al Qaeda affiliates of all varieties now populate the Horn of Africa. The charges on EPLF were so ludicrous that in 2017, United Nations experts had to concede that “Given that the Monitoring Group has been unable to find conclusive evidence of Eritrean support for Al-Shabaab in Somalia for four consecutive mandates, the Group recommends that the Security Council consider disassociating the sanction regimes for Eritrea and Somalia.” The damage was already done by then.
And then there’s Yemen. Saudi and Emirati campaign against Houthi led Ansarallah gave al Qaeda the space it wanted to grow. This unjust war against the Houthis is supported by the United States and allies who not only supply weapons but also help Saudis with intelligence and live maps. On the ground, Saudis and especially Emiratis have been closely coordinating with tribes linked with al Qaeda in thwarting Ansarallah’s efforts to take over the entire country.
But if you think that it is just US’ allies who have hitched their wagons with al Qaeda, then I have a bridge to sell you in Congo. After the Hillary-Clinton WikiLeaks debacle that showed how DC Blob let US’ allies help al Qaeda and Islamic State, the Blob withdrew into the shell for a short while.
One can accuse Donald Trump of various things but one must concede that he at least tried to rein in the aforementioned Blob like his predecessor. That he was not intellectually capable of seeing how the Blob was still forcing his hands is a different matter. Pompeo and Bolton managed to put two terror groups Mojahedin-e-Khalq and East Turkestan Islamic Movement out of the list of terror organisations that the US maintains.
However, Biden’s return has emboldened this Blob. Unlike Obama or Trump, Biden doesn’t want to squander whatever little political capital he has on taking on the establishment. However, he is choosing his wars carefully. While he knew that Afghanistan was a dead horse and a withdrawal was the only option there, he will compensate the Blob with China and Syria.
Within weeks of Biden winning the election, the establishment in the United States mounted a concerted campaign to rehabilitate the Syria al Qaeda, now rechristened Hay’at Tahreer al-Sham, as a moderate organisation and its leader Abu Mohammad al Joulani as a new age Robin Hood.
Mainstream US media conducted interviews after interviews letting Joulani speak inanities while think tanks produced articles like “The moderate face of al Qaeda.” A three-member team from the terrorist organisation was coordinating closely with Western intelligence agencies for this makeover programme. The programme came to its premature end, at least for the time being, when a Russian drone hit a car that was carrying these three terrorists.
As the US’ war shifts further east now towards China, new alliances are being formed. East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an al Qaeda affiliate that the US was fighting just two years ago in Afghanistan has been delisted from the list of terrorist organisations maintained by the US. ETIM’s rechristened version, Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is still a close ally with al Qaeda in Syria. In fact, in the al Qaeda controlled Idlib province, TIP has around 30,000 terrorists drawn from various Turkic groups from Central Asia and Xinjiang in China. This correspondent had a chance to meet and interview a few such fighters along the Idlib-Turkey border in 2016. The group’s various political cut-outs in the US and Europe now closely coordinate with the United States government in its crusade against China.
America has pretty little to show for its 20 Years of War on Terror. Not only are the jihadists more emboldened now, they are also spread over a far wider area than they were two decades ago.
But trust the US to find a new enemy and a new war. Sooner rather than later.