Eighteen years ago, the course of history was dramatically changed with the coordinated crash of two passenger airliners into the World Trade Center. 9/11 marks the starting point of what the United States would dub the War on Terror, gathering a large coalition of partners. The War on Terror is still ongoing today, 18 years later, but by the looks of it, efforts are now in a cul-de-sac. To target and combat the scattered cells of a few jihadist groups, the War on Terror spread over vast portions of the Middle East and North Africa, and subsequently, escalated on a global scale. In 2003, the US waged a war on Iraq, grounded on the basis that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein supposedly developed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a claim never proved by the international expert committee. Just like in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq became a ‘military swamp’, bogging down people, equipment, and funds.
In 2006, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) branched off into an independent terrorist cell, better known today as The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). A bumpy start and an initial defeat led to the restart of the organization in 2008, moving into the deserts of Anbar and Eastern Syria (the latter location came as a carte blanche from Damascus to impede the US actions in Iraq). The culmination was the development of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which quickly subjected over 30% of both Syria and Iraq.
In 2011, the death of Bin Laden was celebrated as a victory of the US-led coalition over Al Qaeda, but the pressing reality soon overshadowed the initial joy. The new leader – Ayman Al-Zawahiri managed to rebuild and re-brand Al-Qaeda, gathering allies in Asia and Africa. This was facilitated by the decentralized structure of Al Qaeda, allowing for greater effectiveness and cooperation with local organizations. As a result, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) developed a powerful network in Mali and spilled over to Burkina Faso, Niger, and Algeria, aligning itself with local radical groups.
While the US special forces were decapitating Al Qaeda in a special-ops now immortalized in a series of movies and documentaries, the Arab world was swept by a series of protests changing the face of the Middle East. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, in fact, started in the winter of 2010 to bring about new political, social, and economic realities. Foreign interventions, government violence, and spreading radicalization were all part of the means enabling the two global terrorist networks – Al Qaeda and ISIS to settle in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The deepening crisis in Somalia facilitated Al-Shabbab’s resurrection and the appearance of the Islamic State in the Horn of Africa. The inception of global terrorism found roots in the burning ashes of what was the Arab Spring’s dream.
Parallel to the ideological activities, the global networks of Al Qaeda and ISIS developed and strengthened a relationship with underground organizations, transforming themselves into a new generation of criminal groups, namely, jihadist cartels. Alongside the task to carry acts of terror to undermine established civil governments, the two groups started trading with heroin, cocaine, synthetic drugs, arms, people, antiques and oil. Drug empires in Mexico and Columbia and the smaller cartel structures elsewhere became valuable partners to the jihadists.
The road to where we stand today
In 2011, the US seemed to be at its peak. Bin Laden was no longer alive, authoritarian leaders, hostile to the US were under pressure from civil unrest, and the relationship with key strategic partners was flourishing. By the looks of it, the US was standing on top – the same place it was in 1991. But 2011 was no 1991. The global economic crisis brought about a drastic change on the social and political levels. The turbulence in society influenced and reshaped political preferences, which, in turn, created a feasible ground for a new model of governing parties and leaders. Experts would rightfully find parallels in a crisis from the 1930s, called the Great Depression.
Like the effects of the Great Depression, our world after the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009 saw authoritarian (on a different scale) governments consolidating power. Leaders like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez who were already untroubled ruling their own states, cemented their positions by using rhetoric, carefully crafted on the weaknesses of unstable democracies.
China’s new position was another major difference. Unlike 1991, in 2009 Beijing was already a balanced leading economic power, on the verge of being consolidated by a new, confident and ambitious leader, aiming to transform the PRC into the main economic and political power of Asia – Xi Jinping. This major change in the political atmosphere has altered the way in which many states, until recently loyal US partners, have started perceiving Washington.
The alienation of certain countries from the US is deepening year by year. Errors are made by both local governments and their societies, and equally the too inadequate and passive US policies. Another major difference is the fact that the US was facing too many challenges at the same time, but unlike the 40’s of the last century, what was missing were the key global partners (the United Kingdom and France and their empires), as well as the global enemy, a bait that used to strengthen the pro-US camp. It turned out that neither Al-Qaeda nor ISIS were enough of a foreign political threat to compensate for the skepticism towards American actions. In addition to the challenges in foreign policy, the US made some serious mistakes with regard to the fight against terror on the ground.
According to recent analyses, over 480 000 people have died as a result of US-led anti-terror operations since 2001. Aggressive air campaigns caused considerable human losses, as well as substantial yet hard to calculate material damage. The destruction of the somewhat established law of order in Iraq and Afghanistan has enabled the spillover effects of societal chaos which Washington was unable to tame. President Trump himself elaborated on an important reason why – the US army has attempted to be the conqueror, but also the policeman, and humanitarian worker as well. That would be too much work for any armed power – a fact, recognized only 18 years later.
The 2017 movie “War Machine” is a well-portrayed satire of the reality which different rank US soldiers face on their missions in Afghanistan. Corrupt politicians demoralized local military and a hostile society are a substantial part of US soldiers’ everyday life in Afghanistan.
Iraq is no different. American hubris is to blame, combined with a concept, deeply rooted in the US mindset – Manifest Destiny. According to this concept, the democratic form of government is the ideal political model and as its main champion, the US is destined to spread it all over the world. Like the Soviet ideology from the 1920s, the US tried to replicate its democratic structure over as many countries as possible. The problem is, the US sought to rewrite the social and political code of societies who were yet to, if at all, have a real touch to democratic governance, in the sense perceived across the Atlantic.
Despite the myriad political and Islamic religious experts, warnings and advice fell on deaf ears in the face of Washington’s administration. The outcome is clear – the US has utterly failed in its social engineering experiment and has made poor decisions in picking loyal partners in the long-run in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Recent Foreign Policy analysis of Professor Stephen M. Walt tiled, “We Lost the War in Afghanistan. Get Over It” was published in the online edition. According to Walt, the Afghan debacle is not, strictly speaking, a military defeat. The Taliban never vanquished the U.S. military in a large-scale clash of arms or caused its forces there to collapse. Instead, it is a defeat in the Clausewitzian sense—18 years of war and “nation-building” did not produce the political aims that U.S. leaders (both Republicans and Democrats) had set for themselves.
So what now?
The sole question that remains is how the US plan to end their interference in Afghanistan. Clearly inviting the Taliban to the table for negotiations was no panacea out of the conflict. Luckily, for both Afghanistan and the US, Donald Trump decided to temporarily freeze diplomatic talks. This pause should be carefully used by the US to develop an adequate plan to realize the end of the conflict in Afghanistan with minimum losses – both material and in terms of US prestige.
And while the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is deteriorating on a monthly basis, things in Syria and Iraq are no better. A tangibly passive US policy made room for Iran’s full-range military and political expansion in both states. Tehran-funded militia and structures filled the vacuum left behind by the collapse of the government forces in 2012-2014. Iran invested considerable resources in its so-called “Iranian road”, reaching the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. At the same time, Tehran tried to make of their local protégés an indispensable military-political factor, with which Damascus and Baghdad must comply at every step. This is Hezbollah’s trademark in Lebanon in the ’80s and 90’s – transforming military organizations into political ones and establishing them as an indispensable player in the state administration.
At the same time, the US made every possible mistake by leaving Bashar Assad in power unchecked and by allowing the empowerment of the Shia majority in Iraq. This, in turn, alienated the Sunni minority and shifted their support towards ISIS. Lack of political balance in the different Islamic denominations seriously alienated the US from both the Sunni and Shia, the latter subject to aggressive Iranian rhetoric.
US failure towards Islam brought about predictable, yet unpredicted social consequences in America itself and the world, namely the far-right extremism. The combination of Islamophobia and xenophobia culminated in a Renaissance of the chauvinistic and nationalistic waves across the world. In the US, the xenophobic wave targets both Muslims and Latin American migrants. Poorly crafted republican rhetoric since 2015 additionally aided the process. “America First” became a mantra for many, leading them to believe that overseas engagements are expensive and unnecessary.
In this debate, the myth that Donald Trump is responsible for the new US isolationism was born. In reality, this is a false perception. Former President Barack Obama was the one to start the process of US withdrawal, right after the financial crisis in 2009. Washington started decreasing its military units first in Iraq and afterward, in Afghanistan. In 2011 the US declared a full withdrawal from Iraq and between 2011 and 2016, the military presence in Afghanistan was decreased from 100, 000 to approximately 10, 000 troops. Simultaneously, Obama’s administration withheld from active participation in several pressing conflict zones – Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Mali. In 2014, the US acted with hesitation to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Back in 2009 Obama gave a clear sign that the US won’t enter a conflict with Russia over Moscow’s war in Abkhazia and Ossetia against Georgia. Focused, in Bernie Sanders’ words, on the War on Terror, the US has missed out on key political processes developing around the world. The rise of China, the new hardliner Russian foreign policy, the growing tensions in the Indian Ocean, the expanding influence of Moscow and Beijing in Africa and Latin America, turbulence in Europe, the rise of local populist parties, the detachment of the Philippines and Pakistan from Washington’s orbit – all processes which Obama’s administration was too hesitant to address.
The policy of minimum engagement and US withdrawal continues in the new administration. Donald Trump speaks of a world in which deals are made and partnerships are preserved. In fact, the world is slowly heading back to is the multipolar model from before 1939, with all its upsides and drawbacks. The US continues missing on the problems of its allies, a good example is a tension between Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, the rest of the global and regional players are looking for a way out of Washington’s sanctions, namely the EU and Iran.
Should the US be worried about the consequences? Most likely not. After all, it was the multipolar world that gave birth to American dominance and power. The more the poles, the stronger the competition to stimulate the current hesitant US economic and political development. To find the right way, the US should experience a catharsis of sorts, to acknowledge the defeats and the victories, and to accept that at least for now, the American foreign policy dream has failed. The US needs a wake-up call to drag them out of the uncertainty. The new global order will soon make that call.
Translated in English by Mia Babikyan