When Osama bin Laden issued his infamous fatwa against the United States and its Western allies, few took him seriously. But to many in the Greater Middle East, bin Laden’s complaints against Western imperialism and decadence rang true.
Even while most did not agree with bin Laden’s explicit promise to commit acts of terrorism against civilian targets in the West, he rose to superstar status – a folk hero, like the Wild West’s Jesse James – and garnered sympathy and support among many in the Greater Middle East.
Yet there was always an unwillingness to believe bin Laden’s threat to the United States. That led to the deadliest attack on the continental United States in America’s history on September 11, 2001.
Bin Laden was not an ordinary blood-soaked bandit. He had a wider vision for the Muslim world. He envisaged restoring the pan-Islamic caliphate that collapsed along with the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.
Al-Qaeda’s frontman desired to re-establish the caliphate by pushing the Americans out. By removing American power from the region, the Islamists could sweep aside the “apostate” governments of the Muslim nations, like Saudi Arabia, that were supported by Washington. They could also destroy the Jewish democracy of Israel.
This was the essence for why bin Laden named his group “al-Qaeda,” which means “The Base” in Arabic. Al-Qaeda was to be a vanguard movement, a group designed to bust apart Western influence and pave the way for larger Islamist political movements to refashion the region in the image that so many Islamists had yearned for.
All of this sounded laughable to most Westerners. But for bin Laden, this was his life’s goal. After 20 years, sadly, it looks like his dream is becoming reality.
Initial success in Afghanistan
All of America’s claims of invincibility were immediately smashed on September 11, 2001.
Then-president George W Bush insisted that all measures be used to bring bin Laden and his confederates to justice for the horrible attacks. To prevent military reprisals, Bush demanded that the ruling Taliban of Afghanistan hand over bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s leadership. The Taliban refused. At that point, the rapid American invasion of Afghanistan began in earnest.
America’s attack on landlocked, distant Afghanistan, with its ancient blood feuds and complex tribal politics, made history. With only a small number of US Special Forces operators and CIA paramilitary forces, the Yanks went charging into Afghanistan within days of the 9/11 attacks – on horseback, no less! – wielding small arms and promising wealth and power to any Afghan who turned against the Pashtun Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
By December 2001, the light American force had busted apart the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s vise-grip on Afghanistan and sent them fleeing for the Pakistani border. Kabul became an American protectorate.
Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld took to the podium in the Pentagon press room to mock the panicked press who had insisted the US invasion of Afghanistan would end in failure.
Smirking and hectoring the dyspeptic press, Rumsfeld demanded that everyone in the room say, “All together now – quagmire!” In just two months, the Americans had apparently succeeded where Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union had failed: conquering Afghanistan.
Of course, the brilliance of the US strategy in Afghanistan was its light military footprint. To most Afghans, the Americans did not appear as invaders but as liberators intent on freeing them from the brutal yoke of the Pashtun Taliban and their foreign al-Qaeda allies. After their removal from Afghanistan, most Afghans assumed the Americans would be on their way (and they should have been, too).
Losing the plot
But even by the start of 2002, the American mission was irrevocably changing in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and his comrades had slipped beyond the grip of the Americans at Tora Bora in December 2001. Bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan, where he would remain for another decade.
Unable and unwilling to admit defeat, the Americans expanded their military footprint in Afghanistan. They backed a notoriously ineffectual and corrupt government in Kabul for 20 years – while trying to refashion Afghanistan into a Western nation.
Afghanistan was the primary battlefield of the Global War on Terrorism. It was where the 9/11 attacks originated. Since the initial invasion of Afghanistan, though, the Americans have witnessed the massive proliferation of bin Laden’s Islamist ideology from the isolated mountains of Afghanistan to the entire region.
From Afghanistan to Iraq, from Egypt to the Sahel, Islamist terrorism pervades. The Americans invaded the Middle East to “drain the swamp. Sweep it all up. Things related and not,” in Rumsfeld’s words.
What ended up happening over time was that American power has been swept away from the region. Islamism is on the rise today. Bin Laden may be dead but his dream of a militant, political Islam lives on.
As President Joe Biden presided over America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies who were returned to power after 20 years of being on the run.
They’ve also been given billions of dollars’ worth of advanced US military equipment, the Taliban have a diplomatic channel with Washington, and it appears as though the United States will be offering military support to the Taliban in their fight against the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) group in eastern Afghanistan.
Thus, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is fair to say that the United States has lost the Global War on Terrorism.
What other defeats are in store for the once-and-future sole remaining superpower?