Successes and Failures of the War on Terror
Juan R. I. Cole
Symposium on “Globalization and Terrorism”
International Institute, University of Michigan
September 11, 2002
On September 11, the al-Qaida terrorist network struck an epochal blow against the United States. It aimed at pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East as a status quo power. With the U.S. intimidated, it hoped, it would become easier to overthrow the governments of Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia and to push the Israelis out of the Middle East. That this power fantasy was absurd and impossible to accomplish by theatrical terrorism, even on a vast scale, did not deter the fanatics who carried it out.
I want to enumerate the remarkable successes the United States has had in responding to this terrorist sneak attack, and to draw attention to the dangers that remain. I would also like to dedicate these words I say here today to the memory of the over 3,000 innocents who died on that day of infamy.
Five challenges were posed to the US by the attacks of September 11. The first was to put together an international coalition that would allow a legitimate battle against al-Qaida. The second was to prosecute that war successfully, despite the difficulties of warfare in rugged, landlocked Afghanistan. The third was to engage in successful counter-subversion against al-Qaida cells in Europe and the Middle East. The fourth was to uphold American values and traditions of civil liberties in the face of terrorism. The fifth was to win over Muslim public opinion and address the problems that radicalized Muslims against the U.S., so as to deprive al-Qaida of a key recruiting tool.
The obstacles were formidable. Al-Qaida had 40 large and well equipped training camps in Afghanistan, with which it had turned out thousands of committed operatives expert in explosives, secret cell organization, and other tools of the terrorist trade for actions against the U.S. It had millions of dollars in contributions to play with, sent by radical or gullible Muslim sympathizers made rich by oil wealth or by business ventures in Europe or the U.S. It controlled, and received the support of, the fundamentalist Taliban government of Afghanistan.
The U.S. quickly put together an international coalition. Secretary of State Colin Powell was able to induce the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to invoke article 5 of its charter, specifying that an attack on one is an attack on all. Further, Powell got a resolution at the UN Security Council authorizing action against Afghanistan. But the U.S. also needed Muslim allies such as Pakistan. President George W. Bush proclaimed soon after the attacks that they were committed by a terrorist fringe that had attempted to hijack the peaceful religion of Islam. He gained enormous political capital by refusing to make Islam or Muslims the enemy. The US was free to concentrate on the terrorists
In the Muslim world, the U.S. needed Pakistani facilities and airspace, but it posed a potential problem. Its military had created the Taliban. What if the Pakistani army stood by Mulla Omar? Powell called General Pervez Musharraf and laid out his options, of either helping the US or becoming a target himself. “General,” he said, “you have a decision to make.” As it turned out, Musharraf was terrified of a US attack, especially since India might take advantage of it. He therefore was persuaded to betray the Taliban, to seal the border and cut off their money and fuel supplies, and to cooperate with US troops being stationed on Pakistani soil. He fired the head of military intelligence, who was too closely associated with the old Taliban strategy. The army stood behind Musharraf, whatever its private sympathies for the Taliban. Most Pakistanis understood that their leader had no choice, and supported him, despite disliking a US strike on Afghanistan. The US was also able to secure bases and cooperation from the Central Asian republics, in the face of Russian skittishness about losing this sphere of influence.
Putting tanks into Afghanistan as the Soviets had seemed a recipe for disaster, and the U.S. had few good military options. The solution came from the intelligence community. CIA Director George Tenet told the National Security Council that field officers and Special Forces personnel could be put in to call down precision airstrikes on Taliban and al-Qaida targets. In the north, the US air power pummeled Taliban armor and troop lines. The ragtag Northern Alliance had as many good fighters as the Taliban, but had lacked good weaponry or air cover. Once they had both, courtesy of the U.S., they rapidly advanced, taking the country’s major cities in a week. It was also essential that some Pushtun heroes emerge from the war, and the US was just barely able to supply them. The Taliban crumbled. The victory of the Northern Alliance and of US Pushtun allies like Hamid Karzai, allowed international aid to flow into Afghanistan, preventing the deaths of millions in a famine that would otherwise have been brought on by Taliban policies.
The US was now in a position to scour the country for al-Qaida bases, capturing secret documents full of terrorist plans. The camps were destroyed, depriving al-Qaida of its secure base of operations and training facilities. Fleeing al-Qaida commandoes were also apprehended. Jemal Beghal, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, was captured in the fall in the United Arab Emirates. He ran a major European cell based in the Netherlands and Belgium. They plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Beghal broke, and named his accomplices. The Dutch authorities were able to arrest them. An Egyptian restaurant in Belgium was searched, and a stockpile of plastic explosives for the embassy bombing was found. The plan had been close to being put into operation. It was recently revealed that the Beghal cell also intended to attack US military personnel in Belgium.
Al-Qaida cells began being identified in Germany, Italy, Holland, France, Belgium, Bosnia and Spain. Dozens of arrests were made and operations disrupted. Videotapes found in Afghanistan tipped Singaporean authorities to the existence of an al-Qaida cell there, which planned to blow up US naval vessels that docked at the island. Another plot was foiled, in which a Christmas market in the picturesque French city of Strasbourg was to be rocked by a massive explosion. Another captured al-Qaida member revealed that U.S. embassies were to be bombed in Southeast Asia on the anniversary of September 11, and this was averted. Preventing such plots has helped forestall the destabilization of Western economies.
The impressive successes of the U.S. War on Terrorism have by no means been complete. Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other high al-Qaida officers remain at large, free to plot further atrocities. Among the millions of European Muslims, only a few hundred are al-Qaida operatives, but many of these are still not under surveillance by European police and intelligence agencies. Likewise, al-Qaida continues to have cells in the Middle East. It was able to pull of a bombing at Djerba in Tunisia, which killed among others a number of German tourists. The US froze the accounts of fraudulent charities and other front organizations of al-Qaida, but funding for al-Qaida has not been stopped, as the United Nations recently admitted.
Although Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, much of it was delivered back into the hands of regional warlords, who remain a constant threat to its stability. The current Afghan government is not broadly based and has a tiny military. Were the country to slide into chaos, al-Qaida might be able to take advantage of this opening to attack the US again. Al-Qaida is regrouping, as evidenced by the recent assassination attempt against President Karzai and the car bombing of a market in Kabul. Immense US efforts at state-building in Afghanistan remain necessary to forestall this disaster.
Of the five tasks imposed on the U.S. by September 11, none has been fulfilled completely, and the fifth has been ignored. The Taliban were brilliantly overthrown and Afghanistan has been denied to al-Qaida as a base of operations, at least for the moment. The international coalition put together in fall of 2001 is still in place, but it is somewhat frayed over the issue of a possible unilateral Iraq campaign. Despite some successes, the ability of the US and other intelligence services to penetrate al-Qaida cells in Europe and the Middle East continues to be limited, and it will probably take these services five years to begin to have significant success in this regard. Finally, the root causes of terrorism in the Muslim world have not been addressed in any way. The issues of Kashmir, Chechnya, Xinjiang, Algeria, and the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis remain as hot as ever. The Bush administration has in some instances trampled on civil liberties and acted unconstitutionally in the attempt to forestall terrorism, seemingly oblivious to the irony that this outcome is the one Bin Laden desired. Voices on the American right have demonized all Muslims for the sins of a handful. The United States is engaged in a battle with al-Qaida for the hearts and minds of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and that battle will be the truly decisive one. It cannot be won by hatred.
Talk given at the International Institute, University of Michigan:
Religion, Security, and Violence in Global Contexts
Wednesday, September 11, 4:00-6:00 p.m., Michigan Union Ballroom
Terrorism and Globalization: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Symposium to encourage public discussion of the effects of September 11, 2001. Speakers will discuss how international humanitarian law, civil liberties, and the American Muslim community have changed in the past year with a focus on how U-M continues to respond. Speakers include Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history, Department of History, University of Michigan; Sherman A. Jackson, associate professor of Medieval Arabic law and theology, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan; Javed Nazir, visiting professor, Department of Communications, University of Michigan and former editor of the Frontier Post, a nonconformist newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan; Mark Tessler, professor of political science and Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan; Ashutosh Varshney, associate professor, Department of Political Science, and director, Center for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan; and Susan Waltz, professor of international relations and public policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. Michael D. Kennedy, Vice Provost for International Affairs and director, International Institute, University of Michigan, will moderate the discussion.
Sponsor: International Institute and Office of the Vice President for Communications