September 11, 2001 is the day ordinary Americans woke up to the fact that their government might not have been associating with only the most refined gentlemen abroad. While Israel and Kashmir had been stewing in terrorism for two decades, mainland America remained largely untouched. Today, on the thirteenth anniversary, with no time for triskaidekaphobia, the United States commemorates the events of that day.
The question at any anniversary remains, to paraphrase Plato’s ghost, what have we learned since? The United States’ Global War on Terror has really become one, turning from a manhunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to violence across Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; far more Americans have died in military action in the Middle East than in the original attacks; the terrorist groups that have evolved from the decimation of al Qa’ida – particularly Boko Haram and the Islamic State – are far more aggressive and cruel than bin Laden’s network. Victory – whatever that means – is no more in sight than it was 13 years ago.
No doubt, the United States and even its Western allies have learned lessons on the battlefield. Tactically, US and European soldiers today are able to understand and respond to asymmetric combat far better than they could in 2001. Yet for all the firepower, intelligence, stealth, and speed, the Islamist conflagration has only spread and intensified since 2001.
Politically and diplomatically, there are two lessons the United States is yet to learn. The first is in its choice of allies. The seeds of September 11 were sown during a war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Washington’s indiscriminate choice of friends and allies – the Taliban, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia – was a recipe for disaster despite the short term successes. Today, the US’ allies in the war on terror are equally circumspect. Analysts repeatedly show financial and training trails leading to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Pakistan yet these remain the local face of the US War on Terror. The governments of these states may or may not funnel money to their non-state militia but support for the Islamists flows freely from the fairly wealthy citizenry of these states. For all the talk about alliances, the approval rating of the United States in these countries is worryingly low.
The diplomatic reality of the fragile alliance against the Salafists is that political correctness exacts a heavy price – the United States does not want to be portrayed as a white, Christian, and imperialist force attacking Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, less radicalised countries like Turkey or Egypt have little say in those circles. No matter, Washington cannot put September 11 to bed unless it squares this circle.
A second lesson that has been missed by the United States is not to be tunnel-visioned about its goals. The financial, military, and intellectual energy the United States brings to crises is admirable but without proper deployment, they may sow seeds for future conflict. During its romance with the Taliban, all Foggy Bottom cared about was to make the Soviet Union bleed slowly as the United States had done in Vietnam. A brilliant tactic against states with enormous military wherewithal, the policy required befriending some very unsavoury characters Washington was warned about even then. In some ways, the obsession with keeping Russia down may be fuelling the US overreaction to the events in Ukraine.
In the Middle East, slower but surer progress that perhaps does not always come with glamourous explosions and special forces is a better bet than the quick responses Washington has managed so far. The extra time will allow for a fuller exploration of options and a steady focus on the larger objective. Ad hoc alliances with Bashar al Assad, the Sunni militia of northern Iraq, Iran, or other regional actors may not necessarily be bad but will they pose a greater threat five or ten years down the road?
Ultimately, we cannot predict the future and today’s allies may well become tomorrow’s foes. Yet no one is asking for a 100-year grand strategy – 20 years will do. Afghanistan reaped September 11 and the War on Terror reaped ISIS; let us hope the fight against ISIS will not reap a new monster tomorrow.