It is 17 years since airstrikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan delivered the first hammer blow of US vengeance for the 9/11 attacks on American soil. The wrath of the world’s most powerful nation, terrible to behold, would have tragic repercussions across the Middle East that continue to echo to this day.
And yet, as evidenced by the ongoing bloody chaos in Afghanistan and the entire region, though undoubtedly awesome the attacks by cruise missiles and B-52 bombers on October 7, 2001, they would ultimately prove shockingly futile. This month, representatives of the Taliban and the US government met in Abu Dhabi for talks aimed at setting an agenda for a peace summit in the new year. The meeting reflected two realities.
The first was that, though they were ousted from power in 2001, the Taliban is still a powerful force in Afghanistan, where it remains in control of half the country.
The other was that both sides realize belatedly that dialogue is the only way forward for a nation that has spent the best part of the past two centuries drenched in blood shed and spilt in the course of foreign interventions.
Ostensibly, US interest in Afghanistan lay in killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, but with the remains of the twin towers still smoldering, the reality was that the American people wanted — and arguably deserved — blood. The Taliban, knowingly giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda, offered to surrender the world’s most wanted man to a third-party nation for trial, but the gesture was insufficient to appease the US. Instead, it launched Operation Enduring Freedom, which endured far longer than anyone imagined it might.
Seventeen years on, it is clear that the US, the region and the wider world has paid an exorbitantly high price, as a calculation published last month by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs made vividly clear. Some 2,977 US and other citizens, mainly civilians, died on 9/11. Between October 2001 and October 2018, about 500,000 people have been killed in America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, where it all began, 147,000 have died. This includes 6,344 American soldiers and civilian contractors and 1,141 other allied troops, from countries including the UK, Germany and Denmark. Though more than twice the number of lives lost on 9/11, these 7,485 deaths are in turn overshadowed by those of the 38,480 Afghan civilians and 58,596 national military and police killed over the past 17 years. Some 42,100 opposition fighters have also been killed.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump, with exquisitely ill-judged timing, announced plans to withdraw half the remaining 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan, where they are training and assisting government forces. US troops will also be pulling out of Syria and even America’s advisory role in Iraq is under threat.
One of the Talibanâ€™s demands in the talks about peace talks has been that all US troops should first be withdrawn. As a Taliban spokesperson told the media after Trump’s surprise announcement, “we weren’t expecting that immediate US response. We are more than happy.”
Whether the withdrawal will lead to a negotiated peace in which the Taliban becomes part of the political process, or serve to persuade them that they need only continue killing to return to power, remains to be seen. Either way, after 17 years of America’s best efforts, the Taliban has not been defeated.
The creation of chaos and instability, the goading of America into war and the stoking of global extremism were the chief objectives of the 9/11 attacks. For those who shared, and still share, bin Laden’s world view, the past 17 years have been an unqualified success. America and its allies have been bled heavily. There have been terrorist outrages on the streets of European capitals. Perhaps worse, Western democracies are being undermined by the rise of far-right populist parties, peddling intolerant and divisive politics.
Trump’s motives for turning US foreign policy on its head, creating consternation throughout the Arab world, are undoubtedly self-serving and for domestic consumption. Yet in tweeting his reluctance to bankroll America’s role as “the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing,” he may also be doing the Middle East an enormous favor.
If the Arab world can no longer rely on American muscle to solve — or to deepen — its problems, then it will have to start fending for itself. The Middle East Strategic Alliance, a proposed Arab Nato, would be a good start on the path to self-reliance and should be fast-tracked into existence. The GCC is already stepping up its security capabilities.
From the poison of fanatical extremism to the epidemic of Iranian interference, the Arab world must work together to define its own future and develop its own antidotes to the complex challenges of the 21st century. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap and it will demand tough choices. But it is the mute testimony of the half a million dead since 2001 that, whatever the cost, it will surely be a price well worth paying.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.
AFP PHOTO/WAKIL KOHSAR