After 20 years of entanglement in Middle East, US now targets Indo-Pacific

Posted on : 2021-09-19 09:33 KST Modified on : 2021-09-19 09:33 KST
After two decades, billions of dollars spent, and countless lives lost, the US has officially withdrawn from Afghanistan. Should we expect the US to repeat its same mistakes as it turns to take on China and Russia?
A member of the Taliban stands guard outside the US embassy compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, in front of a wall painted with the Taliban’s flag. At the end of August, US forces and embassy employees were withdrawn from Afghanistan. (AFP/Yonhap News)
A member of the Taliban stands guard outside the US embassy compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, in front of a wall painted with the Taliban’s flag. At the end of August, US forces and embassy employees were withdrawn from Afghanistan. (AFP/Yonhap News)

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists from the international Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, an icon of American capitalism. Watching this extraordinary attack taking place before his very eyes, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered Richard Myers, acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to take immediate action, adding that he wasn’t interested in just bombing some empty training camp in Afghanistan.

According to the “9/11 Commission Report,” which presented the findings of the US government’s investigation into the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld thought the US should attack not only Osama bin Laden, head of al-Qaeda, but also Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq.

This opinion was shared by Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who was flying back from a trip to Europe. The idea he offered on that return flight was to launch a strike against Hussein.

The next day, President George W. Bush instructed Richard Clarke, the White House’s National Coordinator for Security, to find evidence that Hussein had been involved in the attacks. When Clarke said that al-Qaeda was the culprit, Bush said he was aware, but then repeated his instructions for Clarke to see if Hussein had been behind it.

Amid the confusion following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was most interested in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, who had actually tried to contain al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities. This perverse attitude of the American leadership helps explain how the US became entangled in a war that would last for the next 20 years.

In October 2001, a month after the terror attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan as expected and ousted the Taliban regime for allowing al-Qaeda to operate bases in the country. Then, in March 2003, the US launched an invasion of Iraq and overthrew Hussein’s regime.

But that didn’t bring peace and stability to the Middle East as hoped. The civil war in Syria and the chaos in Iraq that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 allowed for the formation of the Islamic State in 2014.

In addition, the US intervened indirectly in the civil war in Yemen that began in 2014 by supporting Saudi Arabia and carried on low-intensity warfare with Iran by killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in a drone attack in January 2020.

New Yorkers stand at the National 9/11 Memorial site on Wednesday. The memorial is located where the World Trade Center stood before being destroyed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (AFP/Yonhap News)
New Yorkers stand at the National 9/11 Memorial site on Wednesday. The memorial is located where the World Trade Center stood before being destroyed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (AFP/Yonhap News)

The 9/11 attacks shocked the US even more than Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and pushed it to unilaterally seek to impose its own order on the world.

Ill-conceived and poorly executed missions against the wrong enemies in misunderstood countries turned into unwinnable wars as the US found itself gradually sinking deeper and deeper into a bog.

The US was slipping into the quagmire of two decades of Middle Eastern conflict at the very time that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the US’ resulting victory in the Cold War were widely assumed to prove that capitalism and Western liberal democracy were the final stage of human history.

The narrative of “the end of history” strengthened neocons and other idealists on the radical right wing and was enshrined in the American foreign policy of unilateralism with the inauguration of George W. Bush as president in January 2001.

The neocons who then dominated US foreign policy and national security institutions were obsessed with permanently reshaping the order of the Middle East by transplanting liberal democracy there. Replacing the nettlesome regime of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, a country in the heart of the Middle East, was seen as the first step toward achieving this transformation of the region.

Even Henry Kissinger, one of the leading realists among American foreign policy and national security strategists, told the Washington Post in 2005 that the US invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 attacks — including its fabrication of evidence about Hussein’s supposed nuclear weapons program — was justified “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.”

Kissinger explained that the US response to the 9/11 attacks should be disproportionate. His view was that the Iraq War was needed to send a bigger message to the world.

American journalist Ron Suskind quoted a senior advisor of Bush as saying that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” in an article for the New York Times in October 2004.

The US’ obsession with Iraq ended up sabotaging the chief goals of the “war on terror” — namely, eliminating al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. After invading Afghanistan, the US gave up the hunt for bin Laden when he was nearly within reach in the Battle of Tora Bora, on the border with Pakistan.

The US Marine Lt. Gen. Michael Delong, who commanded American forces in the battle, recalled that the Pentagon preferred not to send more troops. By the time of Tora Bora, the top brass in the US military were already preoccupied with preparing for war in Iraq, and they didn’t want US forces to get tied down in Afghanistan.

The paradox of the US’ pursuit of its lofty vision of transforming the Middle East is that the US focused on “regime change” while ignoring the “nation-building” that’s supposed to come afterward.

“I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war,” Bush once said.

In fact, the US military devoted its attention to the Rumsfeld Doctrine, which sought to win wars by rapidly deploying small numbers of troops. Rumsfeld wanted to reform the US military by using the latest technology to make heavily armed troops more agile.

That approach made it possible for Bush to declare victory just one and a half months after the invasion began. Standing under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, Bush said that all major operations in Iraq were over.

But the real fighting had only begun.

Since the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq had both fallen, it was unclear who exactly the enemy was in these wars. Only seven months after the US launched its invasion of Afghanistan, Rumsfeld, the architect of the war, recognized that the war had become protracted.

“I may be impatient,” Rumsfeld wrote to the generals in one of his declassified “snowflake” memoranda on April 17, 2002. “We are never going to get the US military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide the stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”

But that very day, Bush noted during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute that “the history of military conflict in Afghanistan” has been “one of initial success followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure” and declared that the US was “not going to repeat that mistake.”

Rumsfeld would later admit in a memo on Sept. 8, 2003, that “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”

In the end, the US had no choice but to refocus the war from an anti-terrorist strategy to an anti-rebel strategy. The crux of an anti-rebel response to guerilla warfare is pacifying the public and winning them over to your side. That, in turn, requires building a state based on American democratic values.

But it was impossible for the nation-building work that the US supported in the rebellious rural areas to go smoothly. Despite the astronomical sums spent by the US, nation-building was limited to the urban areas where the US military presence was felt. During that process, huge sums allocated by the US were pocketed by corrupt Afghan elites.

Experts estimated that in order for nation-building to succeed in Afghanistan — a country the size of Texas — the US would have to spend US$4 billion to US$5 billion each year for a decade. The US provided Afghanistan with an average of US$1.75 billion in aid in the years 2002-2009.

After switching to an anti-rebel strategy in 2009, the US greatly increased aid, spending a total of US$133 billion. After accounting for inflation, that’s more money than the Marshall Plan, the US’ program for rebuilding Europe after World War II.

But despite those efforts, there were few schools and fewer teachers in the rural areas of Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan has a per capita gross domestic product of just US$500.

The Middle East underwent another unexpected change with the Arab Spring, which began in early 2011. The shockwaves of revolution tore through the Middle East and smashed into Syria and Libya, where authoritarian governments, while admittedly oppressive, had managed to contain Islamist militant groups. That led to a severe power vacuum.

Bush announced a surge of troops on Jan. 10, 2007, admitting the US’ failure in the Iraq War. In the speech, Bush said, “America’s men and women in uniform took away al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan — and we will not allow them to re-establish it in Iraq.”

One result was the emergence of a totally unprecedented monstrous parastate run by Islamist militants in the territories of Iraq and Syria — what was known as the Islamic State. Another was the growing influence of Iran, which the US regards as its archenemy in the Middle East.

The US’ 20 years of war in the Middle East have led to a geopolitical realignment there. The Taliban have returned to Afghanistan, while anarchy, rebellion and civil wars rage on in a number of countries in the region, including Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And now the US is seeking to draw back from the Middle East, a process begun by the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Following his inauguration in January 2021, Biden invited Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to the White House in July and explained that the US military’s combat mission in the country would conclude at the end of the year. The 2,500 American troops who remain in Iraq will only provide support and training responsibilities for the Iraqi army after that, Biden said.

“We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia,” Biden said in a speech to the nation on Aug. 31 when he declared that the US military had completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That withdrawal shows that 20 years of war in the Middle East are drawing to a close, but the disastrous legacy of that war will continue to haunt the US. Meanwhile, the seeds of a new conflict — the US and China’s strategic competition — are beginning to sprout in the Indo-Pacific region, including on the Korean Peninsula.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

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