When George W Bush won race for the White House in November 2000 his team immediately began to change US foreign and security policies to usher in the much-vaunted New American Century. The United States would now go its own way and provide global leadership as the world’s only superpower, ensuring a new era of peace and stability modelled on the American neoliberal free market model.
With this in the background the 9/11 attacks came as an appalling shock and were seen to challenge direclty the very idea of an “American century”. That added to the decision to go to war against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.
Within a few months this expanded into a war on terror against an “axis of evil” of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Iraq being the immediate target. The results over the past twenty years have been little short of catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, many more maimed for life and millions of refugees fleeing their homes, all stemming from four failed wars:
- Afghanistan is in the headlines as the Taliban take control, but we easily forget about the other wars.
- In Iraq there remains deep insecurity and violence stemming from the original western occupation back in 2003.
- In North Africa the 2011 Franco-British operation to terminate the Gaddafi regime in Libya appeared to succeed but Libya is now little more than a deeply insecure failing state that has acted as a conduit for arms and paramilitaries through the Sahara and further south.
- Finally, there was the 2014-18 US-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where armed drones and strike aircraft used 100,000 missiles and “smart” bombs, killing at least 60,000 people, and seeming initially to have defeated ISIS.
Since then, ISIS is reported to still have at least 10,000 fighters still in Iraq and Syria but even more significant is the rise of extreme paramilitary groups linked to ISIS or al-Qaida elsewhere, especially in Africa. Right across the Sahel from Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, extreme violent groups are active, frequently recruiting from the hundreds of thousands of marginalised young people, mostly men, as they expand their areas of control.
To the east, others are active in Somalia and across the Red Sea in Yemen, and to the south more paramilitary groups are active in the DRC and northern Mozambique. Western states respond with armed drones, special forces and local militias in scarcely reported ongoing wars. To make matters worse, ISIS is already active in Afghanistan, and has links with groups elsewhere, not least in southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
It is all such a long way from those apparent successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and it further supports the alternative approach that the response to 9/11 should not have been a war on terror since that was just what the extreme movements wanted. Instead, the attacks should have been seen as appalling acts of transnational criminal activity. The response should have been to bring those behind the attacks to justice. It might have taken a decade or more but would have had far more world-wide public support and cooperation than wars that followed.
Even more important would have been to undercut the development of the extreme movements by learning why they got so much support in the first place and how to undermine and countering that support.
It was an approach that was argued by just a handful of people at the time but got nowhere in the headlong rush to war. It was eloquently put by Walden Bello of the Philippines in an Oxford Research Group analysis just after 9/11 that argued against going to war, when he said:
The only response that will really contribute to global security and peace is for
Washington to address not the symptoms but the roots of terrorism. It is for the
United States to re-examine and substantially change its policies in the Middle
East and the Third World, supporting for a change, arrangements that will not
stand in the way of the achievement of equity, justice and genuine national
sovereignty for currently marginalized peoples. Any other way leads to endless
And endless war is what we now have.
Paul Rogers, August 2021