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War in The War on Terror


Within hours of the attacks on New York and Washington, American intelligence had identified Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden as the terrorists responsible.  Intelligence agents also quickly concluded that that while hiding in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, Bin Laden would be difficult to find and apprehend.  But President George W. Bush soon warned that the United States would not differentiate between terrorist organizations and the governments that harbored them—and so when Afghanistan’s Taliban government refused to cooperate with efforts to locate Bin Laden, the United States prepared to invade.

The invasion, labeled Operation Enduring Freedom, was launched on 7 October 2011, less than a month after the 9/11 terror attack.  Massive air strikes on the Afghan capital of Kabul and Taliban strongholds in Jalalabad and Kandahar preceded land campaigns waged mostly by the Taliban’s domestic enemy, the Northern Alliance, with support from American Special Forces.  In just five weeks, the Taliban was driven from Kabul and the Northern Alliance had taken over the capital—or viewed from a longer perspective, America’s newest Afghan ally succeeded in driving America’s former Afghan ally back into the mountains.

The Taliban

The Taliban emerged from the chaos of Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation during the 1980s. In an attempt to control its borders, the Soviet Union had installed a communist puppet government in Afghanistan in 1979. But resistance to this government within Afghanistan was widespread—and soon this national conflict had acquired international meaning.  For the United States, Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation became a critical Cold War encounter; for the Arabs, Persians and other natives of the Middle East, it was a vital war against foreign occupation; for fundamentalist Muslims, the war in Afghanistan provided an opportunity to impose an Islamic theocracy.  The mujahedeen who led the fight against the Soviets, therefore, drew widespread and disparate support.  The United States provided billions in weapons and cash to the anti-Soviet “freedom fighters”; so too did the communist government of China.  And Islamic traditionalists like Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden also donated money and recruited men for the Afghanistan war.

By 1989, the Soviets had been forced to withdraw, but the violence in Afghanistan persisted as the factions that drove the Soviets out now battled for power. Divided by ethnicity, tribal affiliation, and region of origin, these factions waged war until the Taliban, an organization of Pashtun Sunnis, primarily from the southern part of the country, took Kabul in 1996. 

Once in power, the Taliban strictly imposed ancient Islamic law based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic tradition.  The creeping impurities of the modern world were forbidden—rock music and western clothes, even cassettes and playing cards were banned.  Men were forbidden to trim their beards and women were forced to encase their bodies in burkhas, essentially full-body veils.  And in Afghanistan’s remote mountainous regions, the Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden built training camps from which he continued his broader campaign to drive the United States and all that it represented—modernization, Christianity, commercialism—from the Islamic world.

America’s rapid success in driving the Taliban from power in 2001, therefore, only achieved one of its goals.  The government that had harbored terrorism had been overthrown, but the terrorist that government had harbored still remained at large.

Bin Laden would remain free, and relatively comfortable, in hiding for another decade, when careful American intelligence work finally tracked him down to a suburban compound the quiet town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. US President Barack Obama ordered a daring helicopter raid by Special Forces, who executed the plan to perfection, killing Bin Laden in a firefight on May 2, 2011.

But Osama’s death is the end of this story. Let’s go back closer to the beginning.

Broadening the War on Terror: The Case against Iraq

Over the several next months, American efforts to locate Bin Laden proved futile. But in the fall of 2002, President Bush began to hint that merely bringing Bin Laden himself to justice would not end the War on Terror.  Iraq was, he said, like Afghanistan, guilty of supporting Al Qaeda; some of the 9/11 terrorists may have been trained in Iraq and, therefore, Iraq too must be held accountable for the attack on America. Moreover, Bush added, Iraq was building chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons contrary to the terms of the ceasefire established at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Since 1991, Iraq had been on short leash.  In 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded his neighbor, Kuwait, claiming historic territorial rights over most of the small country.  The United States and a host of other countries protested the invasion.  Iraq’s move was an unprovoked assault on a peaceful country.  More pragmatically, Kuwait had huge oil reserves.  A successful absorption of Kuwait would boost Iraq’s influence over oil prices and give the unpredictable Hussein control over almost 20% of the world’s known reserves.2

After building an impressive coalition that included seven Arab countries, American president George H.W. Bush issued an ultimatum to Hussein: withdraw all Iraqi forces from Kuwait by 15 January 1991 or face overwhelming attack.  When Hussein refused to retreat, the United States launched a massive air attack, followed a month later by an invasion of more than 500,000 coalition ground troops.  Within a hundred hours, Iraqi forces had been driven from the field and President Bush had declared a ceasefire.  Hussein was left in power—Bush feared the social and political chaos that might follow the removal of the heavy-handed dictator.  But severe sanctions were imposed and Hussein was ordered to terminate his weapons programs, subject to inspections by the United Nations.

A decade later, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush—the eldest son of the first President Bush—argued that Iraq was violating these prohibitions and covertly building chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.  Hussein, said Bush, was playing cat and mouse with the UN weapons inspectors and preparing for another move against his neighbors as part of larger goal of establishing regional hegemony.

By January 2003, the Bush Administration had built an elaborate case for war against Iraq and its president.  In his State of the Union Address, President Bush warned that Hussein was amassing “a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons” and was plotting “conquest in the Middle East and… deadly havoc in that region.”  The United States, Bush declared, would not wait until it was too late to derail the Iraqi madman; “America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country,” the president said.3

Operation Iraqi Freedom

On 19 March 2003, President Bush made good on the threat implicit in the “Bush Doctrine.”  Arguing that a first strike or preemptive action was justified when launched in order to protect national security, the president ordered American planes to bomb the Iraqi presidential palace and other sites in Baghdad, in a massive display of “shock and awe.”  A day later, forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, while another batch of commandos secured the oil fields bear Basra.  Within a month, Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, was in American hands and Saddam Hussein had gone into hiding.  On 1 May, President Bush, standing beneath a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” announced that the war in Iraq was essentially over. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”4

Thus quickly and with little resistance, the United States succeeded in two wars in two different Middle Eastern countries.  The Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.  Bin Laden remained at large, but the capture of Hussein in December 2003—the one-time dictator was taken into custody while hiding in a cellar near Tikrit—led many to believe that Bin Laden would soon be similarly apprehended.

The War on Terror Gets More Complicated

But over the ensuing months, this confidence faded as American policymakers and ordinary citizens came to realize that the War on Terror would be far more enduring and complex than these early victories suggested.

In Afghanistan, the native forces that had allied with the United States in ousting the Taliban did begin the process of forming a new government.  Hamid Karzai, a former mujahedeen and disillusioned Taliban supporter, was selected to head an interim government and in January 2004, Afghans adopted a new constitution and elected Karzai to serve as the nation’s president.

But in the more remote regions of the country, the Taliban regrouped and mounted increasingly deadly attacks on US and NATO forces assigned to safeguard the transition to a more moderate government.  In the southern regions of the country, in particular, near the Pakistan border, Taliban forces proved impossible to dislodge. In 2009, eight years after being driven from power, the Taliban appeared stronger than ever, forcing new President Barack Obama to commit another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the US/NATO forces to more than 140,000.

In Iraq, American efforts to complete the task launched by the invasion ran into even more complex challenges and criticism.  For starters, the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that had played such a large part in the American rationale for invading the country were nowhere to be found.  After exhaustive searches, American officials were forced to admit that their fears had been exaggerated.  Before the war, Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations inspection team, had reported that they had discovered neither stockpiles of weapons nor evidence of weapons being moved or hidden.  More investigatory work had to be done, he said, but Iraq was showing increased cooperation to the UN team.  Many of America’s western European allies—most notably Germany and France—had subsequently urged that America show restraint.  Now that Bush officials had to admit that their intelligence was flawed, these nations increased their criticism of the American invasion. 

Nor did the invasion yield any evidence that Al Qaeda had established a significant presence in Hussein’s Iraq.  This piece of the administration’s rationale for invasion also appeared rooted in poor intelligence. But the president largely dismissed the resulting criticism. Saddam Hussein had been overthrown and Iraq was building a new government; in time, Bush insisted, the country would become a source of stability and progress in the region. But this optimistic prophecy proved hard to accept as the war between the United States and Iraq was replaced by a more deadly civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites, with American forces often caught in the middle.

Sunnis and Shiites

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites goes back more than a thousand years to a seventh-century dispute over who should be the successor to the prophet Mohammed.  By the 21st century, the dispute had passed through a complex evolution, leaving the Muslim community theologically divided amongst Sunnis and Shiites much like Christians are divided amongst Catholics and Protestants. In Iraq, moreover, there was still a political dimension to the Sunni/Shiite split. The majority of the population was Shiite, but under Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), Sunnis controlled the government and the economy.  Moreover, since Hussein mistrusted the Shiites, believing that they were more loyal to the Shiite clerics governing Iran, he responded to their political challenges with brutal force. 

Consequently, when Hussein was overthrown and the American liberators promised a new democratic government in Iraq, the Shiite majority enthusiastically prepared to assume power.  Shiites formed new political parties and pressed for the rapid adoption of a new constitution.  Militant Shiites also embraced violence, attacking Sunni mosques and “reclaiming” old Shiite neighborhoods.  The Sunni retaliation was inevitable. Fearing the rising Shiite majority and anxious to restore their former hegemony—even if not Hussein himself—Sunnis attacked their old Shiite enemies as well as the American troops they blamed for the Shiite insurgence.

By 2006, the violence exchanged between sectarian militias had become a full out civil war. And in this volatile environment, outside players began to assume larger roles.  Al Qaeda, a Sunni organization, may have had only small presence in the country prior to 2003, but now it funneled men and resources to Sunni militia.  Meanwhile Iran, still governed by Shiites, provided aid to Shiite militias.

The Surge

By 2007, President Bush was able to point to some progress in the Iraq.   Most notably, in 2005 more than 12 million Iraqis voted in the first general election held under the nation’s new constitution.  But four years after declaring the war “essentially over,” American troops were still under heavy attack.  The total American death count in Iraq climbed over 3000 during 2006, and the United Nations calculated that close to 35,000 Iraqis had been killed by the sectarian violence during the same year.5  Other estimates of Iraqi casualties ranged much higher, into the hundreds of thousands.

The persistent violence led many to call on President Bush to withdraw from Iraq, or at least articulate an exit strategy.  But instead, he announced in January 2007 that he would send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq.  The “surge,” as this new commitment was labeled, represented more, however, than additional troops.  The focus of American military strategy would also change.  Rather than combat sectarian violence through mobile patrols, American troops would pacify and protect individual neighborhoods.  Rather than retreat at the end of each day to a fortified base, these troops would remain deployed within neighborhoods, maintaining a constant deterrent presence.

As Bush left office in 2009, the effectiveness of his surge was still hotly debated. Supporters argued that sectarian violence fell dramatically within areas of American troop concentration. Yet others argued that this violence had already played itself out—Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations had by 2007 already been forced by the violence into segregated and thus more stable neighborhoods. 

The War on Terror Continues

As the War on Terror was handed to a new president, Barack Obama, many questions remained unanswered.  Would more widespread application of the strategies employed in the surge prove effective in bringing stability to Iraq?  Would the government elected under Iraq’s new constitution be able to find a political solution to the ancient tensions between Sunnis and Shiites?  Would Iraq’s sectarian violence persist and thus open the door to increased Al Qaeda and Iranian influence?  Would the Taliban succeed once again in forcing a foreign nation to abandon it objectives in Afghanistan?  And would Bin Laden ever be caught? Would the Saudi terrorist—sometimes seemingly all-but-forgotten forgotten in the evolving war on terror—ever be apprehended and forced to answer for the acts that prompted America’s decade-long pursuit of security and retribution?

The world got its answer, to the last question at least, out of the blue, late on a Sunday evening in early May 2011.  Television viewers tuned into American Idol suddenly found their show pre-empted by breaking, stunning news: Osama Bin Laden was dead.  Years of hard, old-fashioned intelligence work finally turned up a hot lead to a quiet compound in the Pakistani resort town of Abbottabad.  After mulling over whether to order airstrikes or send in Special Forces, President Obama opted for the latter, riskier option.  Using assault helicopters to violate Pakistani airspace from bases in Afghanistan, a U.S. Navy Seals team flew into Osama’s compound, engaged in a brief firefight, and ultimately shot the Al Qaeda leader dead.

For many, Bin Laden’s death meant the end of the War on Terror.  The mastermind of 9/11 would never harm another innocent civilian.  Justice had been served.

But wars still waged in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Al Qaeda continued to exist.  Conflict continued to simmer throughout the Muslim world, from Tunisia through Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran, all the way to Pakistan (where Osama’s success in hiding for years, just a few hundred yards from the Pakistani army’s main training center, raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions).

So the War on Terror, it seemed, had not ended, even with the demise of Osama Bin Laden. The bigger question: could it ever end?

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