Chuck Spinney: Grand Strategy Analysis of 9/11 Blow-Back

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Chuck Spinney

An excellent grand-strategic analysis of last 10 years.


September 1, 2011

9/11 Blowback


Historians will label the events of that September morning 10 years ago as the most destructive act of terrorism ever committed up to that time. But I suspect they will also judge America’s last decade as one of history’s worst overreactions.

Of course overreaction is what terrorists hope to provoke. If judged by that standard, 9/11 was also one of history’s most successful terrorist acts, dragging the United States into two as yet unresolved wars, draining the treasury of $1 trillion and climbing, as well as damaging America’s power and prestige. These wars have empowered our enemies and hurt our friendships, and have almost certainly generated more terrorists than they have killed.

Like other victims of terrorism, the United States believed that somehow the answer could be found in brute force. But ideas seldom yield to force, and militant Islam is an idea. The result has been the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

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The brief war to topple the Taliban and rid Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden was admirably executed, using air power, Northern Alliance allies, and a few C.I.A. agents on horseback to achieve a specific goal. The failure to nab Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, to let them escape from Tora Bora where they were cornered, was a spectacular failure.

Our 10-year occupation, and our off-and-on-again attempts at nation building, have been a disaster.

At first Afghanistan was starved for resources, taking a back seat to the ill-planned, and ill-advised attack on Iraq. When, at last, Afghanistan became a priority, the moment for success had already passed.

Today the Afghan war has morphed into a war against the Pashtuns — perhaps the most war-like people on earth, whom two great empires before us, the Russian and the British, failed to subdue. One could not possibly find a worse place to fight, or a less likely people on whom to impose our will. The Pashtun tribes have risen to the call of Jihad for centuries, and their prowess at battling foreigners is unmatched.

Despite a heavy propaganda campaign to suggest otherwise, the subjugation of the Taliban has been a failure.

Counterinsurgency — protecting the people and winning their support — never really got off the ground. Our strategy seems to be that if we can only kill enough Pashtuns somehow they will agree to surrender.

It is true that the Pashtun tribes and clans have traditionally been willing to switch allegiances when the incentives were sufficiently attractive, so the idea of winning over some groups who are now fighting against us was not totally out of the question.

But so far it has simply not worked, and General David Petraeus fell into the trap into which so many generals before him have fallen: He believed that what he learned in one war, the Iraq war, could be replicated in the next: Afghanistan.

Our British allies made the same mistake, believing that what had succeeded in bringing peace to Northern Ireland could apply to Afghanistan.

As for Iraq, if ever there was an intellectuals’ war, it was Iraq. Neoconservative theorists, who knew nothing about Iraq , believed that the transformational power of democracy could change the Middle East — make Arabs more like Americans.

But what happened was that Iraq became more like the Middle East, and, although violence has slowed, it has by no means been brought to any semblance of normalcy. None of the underlying questions, the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites, what should be the relations of Kurdistan to the rest of the country, have been settled.

In the meantime, the Iraq war has greatly empowered Iran, and the reaction of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in backing Syria’s Bashir al-Assad at Iran’s bidding speaks for itself.

The Bush-Cheney years saw a remarkable abrogation of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, and the descent into torture showed how easily fear can bring even a modern democracy over to the dark side.

Although Al Qaeda was remarkably successful at linking together so many of the Muslim world’s pockets of grievances, mastering the techniques of the Internet, the fact of the matter is that most Muslims would rather not live under the extreme Wahhabism that Al Qaeda preachs. Bin Laden’s ideas about his faith were to Islam what Pol Pot’s were to socialism.

But the sad and counterproductive rise of anti-Muslim attitudes in both Europe and the United States since 9/11 testify that Bin Laden was not entirely unsuccessful in driving a wedge between the Islamic world and the West.

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