Myths perpetuated and busted in the 20 years since 9/11

Today, two decades after the 9/11 terror attacks, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a US-designated global terrorist with a $5million bounty on his head, is the interior minister of a hardline, exclusive, Taliban government in Kabul after the pusillanimous exit of the US forces and abject surrender by the US-trained Afghan forces.
Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.(AP)
Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.(AP)
Updated on Sep 11, 2021 07:33 AM IST
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By Shishir Gupta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

In an article in the New York Times on February 20,2020, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister of Afghanistan and head of the globally proscribed Haqqani Network (HQN) group, propagated a myth by promising a consultative mechanism for “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”. Today, two decades after the 9/11 terror attacks, Haqqani, a US-designated global terrorist with a $5million bounty on his head, is the interior minister of a hardline, exclusive, Taliban government in Kabul after the pusillanimous exit of the US forces and abject surrender by the US-trained Afghan forces.

After spending more than $825 billion on military expenditure, $130 billion on reconstruction and losing at least 2,300 men in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda since 2001, the US war against terror has come full circle — it has ceded power to those from whom it snatched power two decades ago. Worse still, there has been no material change on the ground. The 20-year military occupation of Afghanistan by US forces post 9/11 has shattered many myths, raising serious questions about the US’s future capacity and capability to exert influence on the world. The hasty and pathetic retreat from Kabul will have a serious reputational consequence for the US military and its feckless leadership. Here are some myths that lie brutally exposed with the sudden end of Operation Enduring Freedom, which was launched on October 7, 2001, in response to the twin-tower attacks in New York on 9/11.

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1. Invincibility of the US military and forever wars

The war in Afghanistan is the longest war in the US history after Vietnam, which also ended in American defeat at the hands of an asymmetric force, the Vietcong, and an equally unceremonious exit from Saigon in 1975. Clearly, neither the occupying forces nor the occupied have any love for endless wars. Just as Afghan public support went down for the US forces over the years, the American military also lost the motivation to fight the enemy. India learnt this the hard way in less than three years (1987-1990) in Sri Lanka with nearly 90,000 troops deployed at its peak; the Soviet Union learnt the same lesson in 10 years in Afghanistan. Forever wars are untenable, and the Americans should have gone for a decisive knock-out punch of the Taliban and its affiliates rather than get drawn into a deliberate long-drawn battle.

2. The Taliban won and America lost

The argument that a rag-tag sandals-and-black-turban wearing terror militia defeated the US in Afghanistan is fundamentally flawed. The fact is that the war was won by a duplicitous Pakistan, which successfully managed a high-risk act by overtly supporting the US in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, while its spy agency, the ISI, sustained the Taliban militarily through endless supply of rabid Sunni Islamist cadre, weapons, ammunition, intelligence, tactics, and medical support. Pakistan was both the problem and the solution and the US could never win till Rawalpindi, the headquarters of ISI, was humbled in battle. With Taliban leadership councils or shuras openly functioning in Quetta and Miramshah, and terror affiliates, HQN and al Qaeda, operating in Afghanistan from across the Durand Line separating the two countries, it was a tiring game. And the US did get tired in the end.

Nearly a decade ago, in October 2011, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton bluntly told the Pakistani leadership that it could not keep “snakes” in its backyard to strike its neighbours, even as she asked Islamabad to “squeeze” HQN for attacks on US forces in Afghanistan. Little did she know that the “backyard” she referred to was a pit full of assorted venomous snakes. If there was any doubt about ISI’s nexus with its demon child, that is comprehensively shattered last week when the current DG ISI Lt General Faiz Hameed flaunted his credentials like an imperial viceroy in Serena Hotel in Kabul to supervise military operations against resistance in Panjshir and to approve the Taliban cabinet.

Also Read| 9/11: The end of the ‘forever wars’

Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said: “The US war on terror began with a bang after 9/11 and has ended with a whimper. The Taliban were not forgiven for hosting Osama bin Laden but Pakistan which sheltered Osama for years got forgiveness. More than that, this war did not get extended to Pakistan which regenerated the Taliban and has been complicit in its terrorism. The US has rewarded Pakistan with strategic depth in Afghanistan, and at India’s cost. India has been a victim of cross border terrorism for over three decades. Beyond vengeance, if the war on terror was meant to uphold civilised values, these have been abandoned in the Afghanistan-Pak region. If the war on terror was to make the world safer, that expectation has not been met. “ It lies to the credit of ISI that the US paid over $35 billion to Pakistan, a unique payment for its deceit.

3. Al Qaeda and Taliban have no truck with each other, and al Qaeda has been decimated in Afghanistan

Even as US President Joe Biden declared closure of the mission in Afghanistan citing the completion of military objectives — decimating al Qaeda and killing its first chief Osama bin Laden — a US State Department report totally contradicted the US commander-in-chief. The quarterly report of lead inspector general for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, released on August 17, stated that according to the State Department, the Taliban continues to maintain its relationship with al Qaeda, providing a safe haven for the terrorist group in Afghanistan. If this was not enough, a June report to the UN Security Council said that a significant part of the al Qaeda leadership resided in Afghanistan and just across the border in Pakistan. It said the primary component of the Taliban in dealing with the al Qaeda is the Haqqani Network with ties between two groups sealed on basis of ideological alignment, comrades-in-arms, and inter-marriage. The Biden fallacy was nailed when al Qaeda swore “bayat” (allegiance) to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akundzada on August 31, while announcing global jihad against the US, Israel, and India. It is naive to assume that the US, with its intelligence-gathering capabilities, does not know that pan-Islamic terror groups morph into different identities for operational reasons, with one group deliberately propped up as the enemy for convenience. That enemy is now the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), which any intelligence operative in India will say is an ISI creation and a conglomerate of disaffected cadres from al Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. The last ISKP emir Aslam Farooqui aka Mawlawi Abduillah was arrested by Afghan intelligence on April 4, 2020. He had past links with LeT and Haqqani Network. Farooqui was apparently killed after he was freed from Bagram prison after the Taliban swept to power.

4. America was distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in rise of China

A classified US National Defence Strategy report in 2018 stated that interstate competition, not terrorism, was the primary concern in US national security. The CIA now talks about shifting from counterterrorism to conventional intelligence or spying on other states such as China. It is a flawed argument on part of the US to blame the rise of China to its obsession with Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was Washington itself that assiduously promoted the interests of Beijing by conjuring up fears of the Russian bear to make China into an economic and military power.

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The much-trumpeted Asia Pivot of the Obama regime never fructified, and the US only woke up after China flexed its military muscle to turn the South China Sea into its backyard, militarily threatened Taiwan and Japan, and trained its missiles on a US base in Guam.

China will now seize the opportunity presented by the US’s humiliating exit from Kabul and go for the global jugular through its proxies to become the pre-eminent superpower.

5. Taliban has changed from its previous version

With 17 out of 33 ministers in the Taliban cabinet designated as global terrorists by either the UN or the US or both, and with no women or minority representation, the myth propagated by Haqqani in the Left-liberal West lies in tatters. After two decades of fighting, the Taliban has become more radical and hardline as they believe they defeated the mighty US military (albeit with the help of Pakistan). This is also a result of shady US interlocutors cutting side deals with the Taliban leadership in Doha through the world’s worst (or best) brokers in Qatar and Pakistan with the help of the UK, whose military was brutally decimated in the 18th century by the ancestors of the present Sunni Pashtun force. The present Taliban regime will be the beacon for all affiliated terror groups, particularly in the Afghanistan-Pak region, and its continuation in power will accelerate the perception of diminishing US power with the latter’s own allies in West Asia and Asia questioning its credibility. Rising radicalism will further destabilise the world. It was Covid-19, with its origins in Wuhan, which dented the US economically, but it is the Afghan retreat that has hurt the perception of American military capability. Two decades after 9/11, the stage is set for China. And India should beware of the consequences.

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Sunday, October 24, 2021