20 Years of War on Terrorism

Jindrich Štyrsky, Untitled, 1934.


Staggering costs for a war that did not improve the political and social order in the countries attacked

The world is tired after 20 years of fighting terrorism. Under four presidents, the American people have endured an endless war. But, little by little, the national mood was “souring,” said Elliot Ackerman, a former CIA marine and intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

September 11, 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by three Al-Qaeda cells, which turned civilian planes into weapons of war. Another attack, against the Capitol, was aborted by a confrontation between passengers and hijackers and the plane ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. The anniversary has multiplied analyzes in the US media and around the world about the war declared days after the attack by then-President George W. Bush.

A hit?

“Ugly Victory,” as Ackerman titled his article in the September-October issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs about 20 years of a war that changed two things: how the United States sees itself and how it is perceived by the rest of the world. It was a success? That depends, but one could say yes. “But at what cost?” he asks.

"Fatigue may seem like a minor cost of the war on terror, but it is an obvious strategic risk." As a result, presidents have adopted policies of inaction and "America's credibility has eroded," according to Ackerman. Unlike other wars, this one was fought without conscription or new tax burdens. It was paid for with a growing fiscal deficit. So "it's no surprise," says Ackerman, "that this model has numbed most Americans who haven't realized how the war on terror has taxed the country's credit card."

But he adds something else: the absence of mandatory conscription has led the government to resort to hiring a military caste, which has become increasingly segregated from the rest of society, “opening the deepest civil-military rift that American society has ever known. Already met". The military is one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. For the people, it is an institution that has no political leanings. He is referring to party political leanings. But, asks Ackerman again, "how long can this last under current American political conditions?" Recreate the historic Muslim community Nelly Lahoud, Senior Fellow of the International Security Program at New america, an academic fluent in Arabic, carried out an extensive study of thousands of documents seized by the US army after the invasion of the house where bin Laden took refuge in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. She sought to examine Al-Qaeda's objectives, in the view of its leader, and its intention in launching attacks on US territory, which did not have military objectives, were essentially political.

“Al-Qaeda's mission was to undermine the current order of nation-states and recreate the hoping history, the historical Muslim world community, that ever existed under a single political authority," said Lahoud, who will publish a book entitled "The Bin Laden Papers” next April. Created as a logistical support network for Afghan fighters who had fought against the Soviet invasion, Al-Qaeda later reoriented its objectives. The Soviets were gone, the enemy was now the United States.

An objective as broad as recreating the historic Muslim community seems excessive, for which Al-Qaeda did not have sufficient forces. According to Lahoud, bin Laden believed, however, that he could achieve this by delivering a decisive blow to the United States, forcing them to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries.

If that was his reasoning, of course it turned out to be completely flawed. It is impossible not to think that only a certain form of magical thinking could aspire to transform the world in the direction intended by Bin Laden.

another jihad

In any case, this was the Islamic jihad to which George W. Bush declared the war on terror. For the United States, this was a 20-year project. But in Latin America its activity can be traced almost 30 years earlier, when a similar crusade – of an anticommunist character – was launched, with North American sponsorship.

Like the Al-Qaeda operation, it began with an airstrike, targeting a government palace: not the White House, but La Moneda in Santiago, Chile. On the morning of September 11, 1973, Chilean air force fighters began their attacks, dropping bombs on a defenseless civilian building, setting one of its wings ablaze, while army units attacked it from the street or from neighboring buildings. Inside, the Chilean president defended himself, with a few poorly armed men.

If the Taliban were the spearhead of Washington's fight against the Soviet advances that invaded Afghanistan in 1979, in Chile it was the army – supported politically, economically and militarily (especially with intelligence operations) by Washington – that became a formidable force. terrorist organization. His first major act of terror was the assault and destruction of the government house and the death of President Salvador Allende. Then, he turned the country into a huge concentration camp, making kidnapping, disappearance, torture and murder common practices in military institutions.

The murders of the former commander in chief of the army (Pinochet's predecessor in office), General Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert, in Buenos Aires on September 30, 1974 (one year after the military coup), and that of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Orlando Letelier and his secretary, Ronni Moffitt, two years later in Washington, on September 21, 1976, were two terrorist attacks committed by the Chilean army using the same method: exploding a bomb under their cars. In this way, the organization extended its operational arms to Buenos Aires and to the North American capital itself, without, for that reason, any war on terror being declared.

The Chilean army then organized an international with the allied armies of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, mainly to extend its illegal actions throughout the Southern Cone. “Operation Condor” brought them together, erasing borders, operating as clandestine groups against those they considered political enemies, to carry out kidnappings, disappearances, torture and assassinations. Washington's support was critical to all these operations. In reality, transformed into terrorist organizations, they served as the long arm of Washington's foreign policy in the region, promoting its own jihad: the anti-communist one.

Between July and early August 1976, a few weeks after the Pinochet regime hosted a key Operation Condor meeting in Santiago, the CIA obtained information linking General Pinochet directly to the assassinations planned and carried out by the Condor network, according to the Centro portal. de Investigação Jornalística (CIPER), a Chilean organization.

In an article entitled “Operation Condor: the 'collective murders' involving Pinochet and Manuel Contreras”, researcher Peter Kornbluh analyzes declassified US documentation on the subject. Contreras, a general trusted by Pinochet, organized and headed the National Directorate of Intelligence (DINA) between 1973 and 1977, when he was still a colonel.

A CIA source, says Kornbluh, informed that among the plans of Operation “Condor (coordination of the secret services of the Southern Cone dictatorships) was to 'liquidate selected individuals' abroad”. “Chile has 'many objectives' (which are not identified) in Europe, a source told the CIA in late July 1976”.

For 28 years, he operated a machine that, in 1973, was promoted and supported by Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon administration. The documents in which the president himself approved what would later become a major terrorist operation in South America are now well known.

Ackerman says he had “difficulty remembering what the United States was like. It was like believing – particularly in those euphoric years just after the Cold War – that America's version of democracy could go on forever and that the world had reached the 'end of history'”. Today, he adds, "America is different." They are skeptical of their role in the world, more aware of the costs of war and less eager to export their ideals abroad, especially as they have to fight for them at home.”

staggering costs

The costs of the war on terror are staggering. More than 50 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; more than 30 were wounded in combat and (even more tragic, if possible) more than XNUMX war veterans committed suicide, remembers former national security adviser to Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes.

The cost, in any case, was much higher for the invaded countries. “Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis lost their lives; 37 million people were displaced, according to Brown University research into the effects of war. At a total cost – including caring for those who fought there – of around seven trillion dollars. The war also consumed "an untold amount of limited US government bandwidth," according to Rhodes.

The results of these wars and interventions also failed to improve the political and social order in the attacked countries. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, countries that experienced the most violent clashes in the war on terror, are now involved in conflicts of varying intensity, says Professor Daniel Byman, from Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution. “Where there has been progress towards democratization,” he says, “like in Indonesia or Tunisia, it has been thanks to national movements and leaders, not because of US initiatives.”

A challenge that also took root in US internal politics itself, expressed in ideas such as white supremacy, the libertarian movement or violent Christian expressions, as Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a researcher at the American University, lists. The rise of far-right violence and the normalization of right-wing extremism was expressed in the attacks on the Capitol in Washington on January 6. “A brutal assault fueled by extreme right-wing ideas”, which took a stand on the national political scene. Not only has the backlash to Islamic jihad fueled these ideas; also the “war on terror”, which focused attention on the Islamist threat, allowing right-wing extremism to grow unchecked in the country.

Miller-Idriss points to another factor: a small but embattled contingent of Vietnam veterans who set up training camps for paramilitary forces to establish a white breakaway republic. In 2016, the Proud Boys arise with their street fights, claiming to defend “Western civilization”.

another war

If a certain fanciful vision of the reconstruction of the Muslim historical community is expressed in Bin Laden's documents, another can be found in that of a certain North American political elite, as when Ben Rhodes affirms that North Americans can “be proud, rightly , its global leadership and its aspiration to be the 'city on the hill'” whose light would illuminate the rest of the world.

In an attempt to assume this role, he cites, as an example, the initiative of the Biden administration, which justifies a budget with huge expenditures on infrastructure to demonstrate that democracies can compete successfully with what he calls the “state capitalism” of the Party. Chinese Communist. For Elliot Ackerman, in addition to the loss of lives and financial resources, the “war on terror” revealed other things. Among the most important, in his opinion, was that while the United States was directing its military resources to massive counterinsurgency operations, "Beijing was building a military network capable of fighting and defeating a competitor at its level."

His conclusion is that non-state actors compromised the country's national security, not by attacking the United States, but by diverting attention from state actors such as China, Iran, North Korea or Russia, which expanded their capabilities while Washington looked the other way. side. This is likely not to be entirely the case, but the Biden administration is rushing to reorganize its strengths in the Asia-Pacific region, notably relations with Australia. But his intemperate announcement that he would provide the country with nuclear technology for its submarines ended up looking like a disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, provoking an unusual reaction from France, which called its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra for consultations, outraged by a deal that ruined the “contract of the century”, whereby France would supply Australia with 12 conventional submarines at a cost of 66 billion dollars.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves


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