The US-led global “war on terror,” launched 20 years ago after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the US, was already faltering before US President Joe Biden took office.
Now it might not recover from the blow delivered by Biden’s historic blunder in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The flag of the world’s deadliest terrorists — responsible for killing more than 2,000 US soldiers since 2001 — flew above Kabul on the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
By empowering the Taliban, Biden has empowered all violent Islamist groups, thus making the rebirth of global terror highly likely, and by betraying one ally — the Afghan government — he has made other US allies feel that Washington could abandon them, too, when the chips are down.
The greatest radical Islamist victory in modern times will soon give rise to a terrorist super-state — a haven for transnational fanatics and a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world seeking training to carry out attacks back home.
The Taliban’s “Islamic emirate” will lay the foundation for an international caliphate of the type sought by late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the hijackers who carried out the 2001 attacks.
Whereas the short-lived “caliphate” of the Islamic State (IS) group filled a political vacuum in northern Syria before expanding into Iraq, the Taliban’s emirate has resulted from the defeat of the world’s mightiest power.
The Taliban’s triumph will thus give the international jihadist movement an unprecedented boost, including for enlisting new recruits, with consequences that will play out for many years.
The war on terror, which extends from the Middle East and southern Europe to Africa and Asia, will become increasingly difficult as its fronts multiply.
This comes at a time when the US’ accelerating imperial decline is already weakening its capacity to impose its will on other countries, thereby encouraging China’s global expansion.
Biden, continuing former US president Donald Trump’s policy of military retrenchment, also committed to ending the US combat mission in Iraq this year.
The US has expended huge resources in its war on terror, waging counterterrorism operations in scores of countries.
A recent report from Brown University’s Costs of War project showed that the US’ post-Sept. 11, 2001, wars, including efforts to secure its homeland, have cost about US$8 trillion and caused an estimated 900,000 deaths, including civilians and humanitarian aid workers.
However, they have yielded no enduring results.
The main reason is that the US has long forgotten the lessons of the attacks, including the need to shun the path of expediency. As a result, the politicization of the war on terror has prevented a concerted ideological onslaught on violent jihadism.
Biden, for his part, is drawing specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists, in a bid to obscure the significance of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as well as his administration’s outreach to it.
For example, he claims that fighters of Afghanistan’s IS-affiliated ISIS-K group are “sworn enemies of the Taliban” without acknowledging that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS-K are sworn enemies of the free world.
Likewise, Biden was quick to absolve the Taliban of responsibility for a bombing at Kabul’s airport late last month by pinning the blame on ISIS-K, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US is ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the new regime in Kabul.
However, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS-K share a common ideology and commitment to violent jihad, with their members commingling and even moving from one group to another.
As the US Department of Defense has acknowledged, the victorious Taliban have released thousands of ISIS-K prisoners.
Moreover, a UN Security Council report found that “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned.”
However, the US Department of State has sought to spin a myth by claiming that the Taliban and its special forces, the Haqqani network, “are separate entities.”
In fact, the Taliban and the network are wings of Pakistan’s “deep state.”
The network’s head, Afghan Minister of the Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a deputy leader of the Taliban, and the arrival in Kabul of the head of the rogue Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency even before the Taliban formed its government highlighted that the real victor in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which has virtually gained proxy control of its neighbor.
Yet, underscoring the geopolitics behind the war on terror, the Biden administration is unlikely to punish Pakistan, a “major non-NATO ally,” for engineering the US’ humiliating rout in Afghanistan. Instead, it is relying on Pakistan and another long-time sponsor of jihadists, Qatar, to establish a relationship with the theocratic dictatorship in Kabul.
The US has come full circle by ceding control of Afghanistan to the same organization that gave bin Laden the base from which to plot the 2001 attacks.
Those attacks resulted from Washington’s troubling ties with Islamist groups since the 1980s, when then-US president Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to encourage armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, including the Haqqani network’s founder, cut their teeth in that CIA-run covert war.
Another veteran of that war now heads the Taliban regime — Acting Afghan Prime Minister Muhammad Hassan Akhund, a UN-listed terrorist and architect of the 2001 demolition of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
However within a decade of the 2001 attacks, the US returned to training jihadists and funneling lethal arms to them in regime-change wars, such as in Syria and Libya, with the CIA’s US$1 billion secret war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resulting in the rise of the IS.
Moreover, it bankrolled a renegade Pakistan as it sheltered the Taliban’s command-and-control network.
Forgetting the lessons of the 2001 attacks has effectively derailed the global war on terror. Putting it back on track, though a daunting challenge, is essential if the scourge of violent jihadism is not to become the defining crisis of this century.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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