It sounded like the end of a dramatic era. “It is time to end America’s longest war,” said US President Joe Biden a few months after taking office and announced that all US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. So exactly 20 years to the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. “Some of our soldiers,” said Biden, “were not even born when our country was attacked on September 11, 2001.” Although Islamist terrorism has not been defeated, it has been weakened for the long term; the US would now have to concentrate on other threats, above all China — this is the reading of the White House after two decades of the “war on terror”. Hundreds of millions of people between Baghdad, Kabul and Bamako are likely to see things differently.
The then President George W. Bush had proclaimed the “Global War on Terror” a few days after the attacks on September 11, 2001. The Al-Qaeda terrorist network was immediately suspected. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it doesn’t end there,” Bush told Congress. “It will not end until every terrorist group with global reach is found, stopped and defeated.”
In the history of modern terrorism, nation states had previously avoided countering the violence of non-state actors with the rhetoric and means of war. Assassinations, whether by anarchists, secessionists, religious fanatics or members of a liberation movement, were considered criminal acts that were tried in court — even if they often had nothing to do with the rule of law. The central question, writes political scientist Herfried Münkler, was “whether the perpetrators should be given political motivation”.
But in the mid-1980s the line between the crime and war paradigms began to blur. In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan described terrorist attacks as “acts of war”. This was preceded by the detonation of a car bomb by the Shiite Hezbollah in Beirut, which killed 241 US soldiers, as well as several assassinations against American targets for which Washington blamed the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.
In the case of Hezbollah, the US did not hit back. Instead, Reagan withdrew the troops a little later from Lebanon, which is said to have convinced and inspired a young Sunni jihadist named Osama bin Laden of the vulnerability of the superpower. In 1986, however, the Reagan administration bombed targets in Libya after two US soldiers had died in an attempt by the Libyan secret service on the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin.
In 1998, after al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Bill Clinton ordered rocket attacks on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan linked to the terrorist network. But the threshold for declaring war on terrorists was not crossed, also in order not to upgrade the latter politically.
This required the epochal attacks of September 11, 2001 and the equally epochal television images that they generated. At that time, some international lawyers and diplomats warned urgently against the “war paradigm” and advocated an alternative strategy: globally coordinated prosecution of the Al Qaeda network, sanctions against its state sponsors and a revision of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Whether this would have been politically enforceable under the impact of the collapsing World Trade Center is questionable. Osama bin Laden apparently knew well which physical and visual dimensions of terror he had to choose in order to get the declaration of war he wanted from the superpower USA.
George W. Bush already had the legal basis for the “Global War on Terror” on his desk when he announced it. The Authorization for Use of the Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, allowed the President “to use all means and appropriate force against those nations, organizations and persons” involved in the planning, execution or support of the Attacks of September 11, 2001 were involved. For the first time, US armed forces could officially be used not only against states, but also against non-state groups and individuals.
The AUMF initially served as legitimation for the military intervention in Afghanistan, where bin Laden had set up his headquarters with the approval of the ruling Taliban . Their regime collapsed within a few weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. However, Osama bin Laden was able to escape to Pakistan, where he was to remain undiscovered for ten years.
In the months and years that followed, the AUMF also served a far-reaching dismantling of international legal norms. After 9/11, a “council of war” was formed around Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, consisting of the military, intelligence officers, security advisers and lawyers. In their eyes, the AUMF granted the president unrestricted freedom of action in the fight against Islamist terrorism. The kidnapping or targeted killing of suspects by the CIA appeared to them to be just as legitimate as secret CIA prisons abroad (so-called black sites ), the use of torture (declared as “extended interrogation methods”), widespread wiretapping without a judicial order, and unlimited conviction in the prison campGuantánamo. For the Council of War there was no doubt that international humanitarian law, above all the Geneva Conventions, had no validity in the “war on terror”. Bush’s closest European allies in Great Britain shared this view. The West, wrote Robert Cooper, British diplomat and advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2002, needs to get used to the “idea of double standards”: “Between us we obey the law. But if we operate in the jungle, we have to Apply the laws of the jungle. “
The “Global War on Terror” not only ushered in a security policy and legal paradigm shift. The doctrine also provided a media smoke screen for other geostrategic interests. Leading members of the Council of War in Washington, above all Cheney, Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, saw the turn of 9/11 as an opportunity for a political reorganization in the Middle East. This should come with a regime change in Iraqkick off. Despite global mass protests and criticism from other Western countries, including France and Germany, the US attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003. An extended AUMF was sufficient for the White House as a legal basis. The dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown at the end of April. Washington’s justification for the war, according to which Saddam cooperates with al-Qaeda and possesses weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be untrue a little later.
Can it even be ended then? A US president had tried before Joe Biden. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, war rhetoric suddenly disappeared from the White House vocabulary. Obama never concealed the fact that he considered the declaration of a temporal and localized war against terrorists to be a capital mistake and the US invasion of Iraq to be “stupid”. No sooner sworn in than he took back some of the worst excesses of the “War on Terror”: He banned the “extended interrogation methods” and ordered the closure of all black sites and the Guantánamo prison camp. The latter failed — due to opposition from the US Congress and Obama’s lack of will to enter into a confrontation with the legislature.
The US-led “War on Terror” has undoubtedly weakened Islamist militias and networks — above all through ever new surveillance technologies and through Obama’s massive use of drones. The question is at what price. In 2020, scientists at Brown University in the United States drew up an interim balance sheet of the human, political and fiscal costs of the war on terrorism. According to this, at least 800,000 people, almost half of them civilians, had been killed in direct combat operations by then — the vast majority in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. According to the authors of the “Cost of War” project, a much larger number died of indirect consequences such as malnutrition, hunger and the collapse of health systems in contested areas.
Originally published at https://zaviews.blogspot.com.