September 11th changed the trajectory of history. The attacks began what appears to be war campaign with no end in sight. While the initial operations against Afghanistan was justified and supported by the international community, the direction of the campaigns afterward was both financially imprudent and unproductive to an extent.
As the Afghan campaign began winding down with the defeat of the Taliban, it was abruptly interrupted with a new front, Iraq. With the US’ attention diverted towards Iraq, the Taliban were defeated but not eliminated. The invasion of Iraq was partly goaded on by Osama Bin Laden. His modus operandi was to engage the US and elicit a response in the form of a long-term campaign . His desire was to bankrupt the US through the War on Terror. With the September 11th attacks costing Al Qaeda approximately half a million dollars , their bet has perhaps resulted in the largest return ever . The current approach in executing the War on Terror is leading to large costs for the US. Al Qaeda’s desire to bankrupt the US has resulted in the biggest short of history.
A short position is defined as the “sale of a borrowed security, commodity or currency with the expectation that the asset will fall in value ”. In other words, shorting is wagering that a firm or in this case a country will fall in value over time.
After 9/11, the American security paradigm transformed due to fears of another attack on the US. The Bush administration began implementing new measures to ensure security of the homeland. The drums of war also began to beat. But as the public and administration were caught up in the fog of war and revenge, the intent of the terrorist attacks were lost on many. Bin Laden was fully cognizant his ill-equipped team of terrorist could not stand a chance against the strongest military in history but his desire was that such a provocation would be the catalyst for his grand plan.
Shortly after the initiation of the Iraq War, Bin Laden released a tape outlining the group’s long term strategy, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy .” Yet this proclamation was disregarded by many. In 2004, the national debt was at $7 trillion Dollars , today it stands at approximately $19 trillion Dollars and terrorism appears to becoming more widespread.
Although the Taliban were routed, they were not eliminated. The group found safe havens in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Instead of pursuing and eliminating the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s leadership, the United States decided to begin a new front against terrorism in Iraq. This is where the strategy began to go astray. Another conventional war added more to the national debt. These campaigns were not being paid for directly but being accrued to the debt.
Aside from the fact that the war in Iraq turned out to be ill-planned and launched under a false pretense, it was not a cheap affair. The Iraq War has cost the American taxpayers about $2 trillion Dollars but is estimated to rise to approximately $6 trillion Dollars in the next few decades . The Afghan War, which officially ended on December 31st, 2014 (but is still ragin on) has cost the American taxpayers about $1 trillion Dollars . The long term cost of that war will grow in the next few decades as well. Just the two campaigns alone can end up costing American taxpayers around $10 trillion Dollars, leave alone the additional covert wars, battles and drone strikes being carried out under the banner of the War on Terror . With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 costing half a million Dollars, the return on investment for Al Qaeda is about 20 million to 1 (without accounting for inflation). This simple analysis is not accounting for the cost and grief that is endured by the families and friends of those who died in the wars. That is a price that cannot be measured.
Was It Needed
The September 11th attacks brought a new enemy to the forefront, Muslim radicals. There is no doubt that pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was the correct course. The front in Afghanistan should have been the first and perhaps last conventional engagement in the War on Terror. But the Bush administration pursued a policy of “Transformational Diplomacy “; promoting democratic reform through hard power. Not only did the Iraq War create a major financial burden, it bogged American troops, resources and attention from the actual war of eliminating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum and opened the flood gates for foreign terrorists to enter the country. The extremists took root in a once secular nation, which began to fissure along sectarian lines. The combination of war, foreign extremists who fueled the embers of sectarian violence, and a newly disenfranchised segment of the population (Sunnis) spawned a new terror group; ISIS. Today, ISIS has eclipsed Al Qaeda in terms of threat as well as barbarity. The war in Iraq opened a Pandora’s Box of terrorism and allowed for all these radicals to emerge and establish a network in a place they were essentially nonexistent prior to the invasion. The Iraq War is one of the largest foreign policy mistakes ever in American history and a major factor behind the instabilities that are currently being witnessed across the region .
Aside from the initial conventional war in Afghanistan, all the other campaigns against terrorist targets should have focused more on smart power rather than purely hard power. The United States’ military is second to none but a hard power centric strategy was not ideal. A combination of both soft and hard power would have allowed the US to win hearts and minds as well as eliminate the root of terrorism. The War on Terror should have focused more on building intelligence networks and capabilities, limited engagements throughout the globe with Special Forces and/or drone strikes, as well as building better regional coalitions to defeat local menaces. This approach would have been a less costly affair than the current strategy that is employed where conventional war is used and supplemented by these other tactics. As demonstrated by the false premise behind the Iraq War, underestimation of ISIS’ threat and drone strike statistics , the US’ intelligence capabilities with regard to the War on Terror have not been optimal and in some cases have created more terrorism rather than eliminate it .
Now almost 15 years after 9/11, the world appears to be much more unstable and dangerous than on the onset of this campaign. Since then the US national debt has almost quadrupled with the debt to GDP ratio at 100% . Such levels are unsustainable to say the least. The War on Terror has caused the US to become financially insolvent, is this what Bin Laden’s grand strategy was? Is this why he prodded the US into war in Iraq, knowing two fronts will create a quagmire? The continuous enflaming of sectarian violence by Al Qaeda in Iraq appears to have spilled over into other countries of the region, which are engulfed in civil wars along sectarian lines now. Was it all worth it, can it have been done cheaper and better, no one will ever know; hindsight is 20/20.
A Virus Yet to Be Eradicated
Much as everything in this world, human memory knows its limits. Increasingly receding into a background of the past, episodes of our life—be they thrilling at the thought or intensely dramatic—grow faint and fade, as they are gradually eclipsed by latest events and fresh experiences.
On September 11, 2001, I happened to be a first-hand witness to the most heinous terrorist attack in humanity’s contemporary history—the hijacked passenger jets heading to crash into the towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Twenty-one years later, I’m somewhat in doubt that all of this happened to me for a fact: blinding flares of orange against the backdrop of a blue September sky, swirls of smoke and dust slowly blanketing the city’s downtown narrow streets, a high-pitched cacophony of fire-truck and police sirens, crowds of disoriented people having no idea where to run and what the next moment might bring.
In the wake of 9/11, international terrorism has predictably become a thing to bandy about. Like many of my colleagues, I was attending numerous conferences and seminars as well as partaking in various research projects on the subject. Besides, a stroke of fate gave me a rare opportunity to have personal conversations with such heavyweights of world politics as Vyacheslav Trubnikov, Richard Armitage, Thomas R. Pickering, Kofi Annan and others, who made their meaningful contribution to fostering cooperation in countering the terrorist threat. In a way, their efforts have borne fruit as the world has seen nothing similar to 9/11 since 2001.
Still, we have to admit that the war on terror has not ended in a decisive victory. Terrorist attacks no longer claim lives of thousands—however, hundreds have died in the massive attacks in Paris and in Madrid, in Bagdad and in Berlin, in Beslan and over Sinai, in Gamboru (Nigeria) and in Mumbai (India), with new names added to this tragic list every so often. Large-scale terrorist attacks are now few and far between in the United States, but there have been more of them in Europe, let alone in the Middle East. The recent suicide bombing near the Russian Embassy in Kabul is yet another reminder that the terrorist threat is still here. Why, then, is the goal to wipe out terrorism—now dating two decades—not achieved so far?
In the first place, the international community has failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism’s origins, driving forces and character. What some actors explicitly dub as “terrorist” may look like a national liberation struggle for others. Bring up the issue of terrorism in Kashmir in a conversation with Indians and Pakistani, only to see there can hardly be a common denominator in this matter.
Second, any success in the fight against terrorism entails a high level of trust between the interacting parties—simply because they would have to exchange sensitive and confidential information. In today’s world, trust is thin on the ground. An apparent and mounting deficit of this resource is not only present in the relations between Moscow and Washington; it also takes its toll on the relations between Beijing and Brussels, between Riyadh and Teheran, between Cairo and Addis Ababa, between Bogota and Caracas, and the list goes on.
Third, international terrorism is far from an issue that is set in stone. It is gradually changing and evolving to become more resilient, sophisticated, and cunning. Similar to a dangerous virus, the terrorist threat is mutating, generating ever new strains. Ironically, what is especially dangerous today is the kind of terrorism bred by anonymous mavericks and amateurs rather than the sort represented by well-known transnational extremist movements—individualists are the hardest to track and neutralize, while plans of amateurs are harder to reveal.
The current progress in military technology, coupled with other trends in the contemporary international arena, portend a new spike in terrorist activities in the coming years. Modern and increasingly complex social and economic infrastructure, especially in large metropolitan areas, is an enabling environment for hard-hitting terrorist attacks. Besides, international and civil conflicts—like the one raging in Ukraine—drastically heighten the accessibility of modern arms for would-be terrorists.
Add to this a comprehensive setback in the resilience of global economy, which may be fraught with more social tensions and an inevitable rise of pollical radicalism and extremism in a broad range of countries. An obvious foretelling: In this “nutrient broth”, the virus of terrorism, which has not been wholly eradicated, stands all the chances for an “explosive” growth.
It may well be possible that all of us will in the years ahead be lucky enough to avoid a second edition of the events that shattered the world on September 11, 2001. Still, taking terrorism off the agenda is only possible if humanity effects a transition to a new level of global governance. It is either that the leading powers are wise and energetic enough for this, or the tax that international terrorism imposes on our common civilization will be progressively higher.
From our partner RIAC
ISIS Rises from the Dust in the Syrian Desert
Over the last few months Syria’s northeast has been spiraling downwards to chaos amid the surge of violence and terror attributed to Islamic State (IS). After almost five years of dormant existence the terror group is once again making its way to prominence in Syria. With the so-called territorial califate no longer viable, the IS members have switched to hit-and-run attacks on remote outposts and prolific use of improvised explosive devices (IED) against vehicles. These attacks target both US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army units operating in the northeastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. At the same time the terrorists managed to restore afinancial safety net by extorting money from local professionals, including small business owners, doctors and teachers. Those who refuse to pay are subjected to threats and torture. The resulting insecurity enables the terror group to widen the scope of its activities even further.
The deterioration of the security situation in Syria went almost unnoticed by the international community distracted by the Ukrainian conflict. Under these circumstances the U.S. has a window of opportunity to curb the Russian influence in Syria and undermine theimage of power projected by Moscow in the Middle East.
Indeed, the areas held by the Russians and the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor and Homs have witnessed an increase in bloody attacks, supposedly carried out by IS fighters. The terrorists were able to avoid retaliation by retreating to no man’s land in the areas abutting the U.S. bases, namely Al-Shadadi, the Green Zone near Abu-Kemal border crossing and Al-Tanf base. Moreover, previously each IS attack in US-controlled areas had been followed by joint raids of SDF and the US special forces. It is no longer so. Considerable resources that might otherwise have been used for counterinsurgency operations are allocated to maintaining security in Al-Hol camp, where some 12,000 IS fighters and their family members are held. Add to that the imminent threat of Turkish invasion from the north. The SDF was led into a deadlock and is loosing the grip on the region. Meanwhile IS sleeper cells exploit the situation to their advantage and infiltrate territories controlled by the Syrian army.
These suspicions are confirmed by a high-ranking source in the Syrian intelligence. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source claimed that the U.S. helicopters transported 200 former IS fighters from prisons in Haseke to the 55-km security zone around Al-Tanf. The terrorists will be split up into groups of 10 – 15 people. These groups will be then sent to provinces with Russian presence including Homs, Latakia, Tartus and Damascus with the task of conducting terror attacks with IEDs at the Russian military sites. Most of the selected militants originate from Northern Caucasia or Central Asia and therefore are fluent in Russian.
The source added that the list of the primary targets of the terrorists includes the phosphate mines in Hneifis guarded by Russian security companies as well as Russian military bases in Lattakia, Tartus, Damascus and Aleppo.
Ultimately, the recruitment of IS members to create disturbance for the Russians would only become a logical development of the proxy policy adopted by the U.S. in Syria. After all, Washington is killing two birds with one stone by destabilizing the area of Russian influence and making use of the IS prisoners. However, there is another conclusion to be made: Washington has failed in its initial mission to defeat IS and is now resorting to the use of terror group splinters in its political power games.
Pakistan is a victim of terrorism
A High-Level Ministerial the first Session of the UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism was held on 8 September 2022, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s remarks:-
“I am honored to speak today at the first UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism. This subject has special resonance for me personally, having lost my illustrious mother, the first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan, in a dastardly act of terrorism.
2. The Government and the people of Pakistan pay solemn tribute to all those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists. I express my profound support and solidarity with the victims and families of those who have been affected by this scourge.
3. The international community has an abiding responsibility to protect and support victims of terrorism. This has to be the basic tenant of our efforts to promote peace and security in the world.
4. While waging kinetic efforts to eradicate terrorist groups is imperative, we cannot fully win the fight against terrorism without preserving the rights of millions of innocent, defenseless, and vulnerable people who have suffered immensely because of terrorism. There should be more focus on retribution and rehabilitation and justice. Equally important is the need to work together to prevent further attacks, hold terrorists to account, and adopt a uniform victim-centric approach while addressing the challenges faced in conflict zones.
5. It is also unfortunate that political expediency and real politick have been allowed to dictate international response towards terrorism. Our tolerance for terrorism must not be a function of our foreign and domestic policies. This selective approach toward terrorism is the biggest injustice to the victims of terrorism.
6. For the last two decades, Pakistan has been one of the worst victims of terrorism – with over 80,000 causalities and economic losses exceeding $150 billion. We pay tribute to the families of martyrs of our law enforcement agencies and armed forces, who have rendered invaluable sacrifices while defending our motherland.
7. If we are to chart a way forward for victims, we must look beyond narrow political interests and geo-political agendas. We must examine why, despite global strategies, the terrorist threats continue to proliferate and give rise to the number of victims.
8. To further debate this issue, I would like to make a few points: First, we must address the root causes of terrorism and conditions conducive to terrorism. Second, we must distinguish terrorism from legitimate struggles for self-determination. Third, we must address state-sponsored terrorism, especially in cases of foreign occupation, and reject occupying powers’ propensity to use brute force against occupied people in the name of counter-terrorism operations. Fourth, we must have a consensus definition of terrorism and take into account new and emerging threats. Fifth, we must address challenges emanating from the use of new technologies by terrorists, especially on social media and the dark web. And finally, we must counter disinformation campaigns.
9. Pakistan condemns terrorism in all forms and manifestations including right-wing, Islamophobia, racially and ethnically motivated, and state-sponsored terrorism.
10. Terrorism can only be completely eradicated by fighting extremism and the mindset that breeds violent extremism. I would like to urge that this global problem requires continuing international cooperation without any prejudices or preconceived notions against any particular religion, race, civilization, or country.
11. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay special homage to the oppressed people of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and Palestine who deserve our special attention for their continuing suffering as victims of the worst forms of state-terrorism. The international community must hold the perpetrators of such state terrorism, and crimes against humanity, to account.
12. Our inability to address these issues will continue to increase victims and add to their suffering. It will also add to the physical and psychological trauma that may outlive many conflicts. The international community owes it to the victims of terrorism to take effective steps to address terrorism, wherever it may be, in whatever form it exists, without political considerations. This is our moral as well as legal obligation.”
Pakistan’s sacrifices in the Afghan war are much more than the collective damages caused to the 46 nations alliance led by the US in Afghanistan. Pakistan suffered the loss of around 80,000 precious human lives and an economic loss of estimated worth US Dollars 250 billion, in addition to the menace of terrorism, drugs, and gun cultures. The international community should acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices and compensate.
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