The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States led to various responses
in the American public, shock and outrage the most immediate. Subsequent
polling data showed another response. Trust in government rose sharply and
immediately - a curious phenomenon, for 9/11 could be readily seen as resulting
from colossal government failures. The eighth anniversary should be a time of
solemn remembrance, but not unreflective support. It should be a time of
assessing the ensuing wars and the competence of national security
Initial campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq were truly remarkable and will
be benchmarks for future conventional operations. Special forces and airpower
worked alongside Northern Alliance fighters to drive out Taliban and al-Qaeda
troops in short order. In early 2003, the military plunged into Iraq and
seized Baghdad in a manner that astonished all.
Soon thereafter, however, insurgencies developed. The military was slow to
identify the nature of the fighting as an insurgency, and in any case
acquiesced to characterizations of the fighters as only a few "dead-enders" - a
judgment made by political hands in Washington with no military background or
regional expertise. The military responded to the insurgencies with
conventional methods of meeting force with force and calling in air power -
quite effective in conventional warfare in which the military had long trained,
but counter-productive against insurgencies.
Although colonels and generals who had been platoon and company commanders
during the Vietnam War made the military of today, they refused to make
counter-insurgency principles basic parts of its doctrines and training.
Most knew that such principles had had at least some success in Southeast Asia
when put to use by special forces and marines, but the post-Vietnam military
reasoned that proficiency in counter-insurgency would increase the likelihood
that politicians would send them off into another insurgency. This would again
gravely damage the military’s cohesion and prestige - evidence that armies are
not always designed to fight the previous war.
The likelihood of insurgencies developing in Afghanistan and Iraq was clear to
most military analysts with even a basic understanding of those countries, and
their subsequent development was apparent early on. Nonetheless,
counter-insurgency principles were put into operation only slowly and
belatedly. They might have been put into play too late in Afghanistan.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began as a result of intelligence failures
regarding al-Qaeda and its determination to attack inside the US - this, even
after an attempt to smuggle explosives into the country was discovered in
December of 1999. Subsequent intelligence assessments have done nothing to
enhance the luster of the intelligence community.
Studies of potential adverse consequences to a US presence in Afghanistan or
Iraq were either inadequately developed or insufficiently disseminated to
policymakers and congressional oversight committees, apparent though many such
consequences were. Instead, fierce insurgencies developed, al-Qaeda’s support
in the Islamic world and Europe has gone up, and Iranian influence in the
region has grown.
The US intelligence community is confused by the Middle East and has been since
it concluded some 30 years ago that the mass movements that ousted the shah of
Iran had been orchestrated by Soviet intelligence - a preposterous assessment
born of Cold War anxiety and institutional group think.
US intelligence is balefully influenced by pressures from the White House and
by internal politics. It was silent when ambiguities about Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were neatly redacted by neo-conservative
appointees and when the same people overstated the role of foreign powers in
the Iraqi insurgency. Perhaps most importantly now, the status of Iran’s
nuclear program is "determined" more by antagonistic cliques than by thoughtful
The September 11 attacks gave the Bush administration the opening to embark on
an ambitious program of transforming countries of the Middle East into
Western-style democracies, amenable to liberal economics and non-threatening to
allies. The ambitious agenda would have remained in think-tanks and lobbies
along with plans for inter-planetary colonization, but 9/11 brought it to the
Pentagon and then to US Central Command.
The impracticality of the program is clearer with each passing year, but amid
the sense of mission and might that 9/11 brought - in the administration and
the public as well - it seemed both the decent and practical thing to do.
Nonetheless, the administration felt the need to redact irksome intelligence
reports, deleting ambiguities and nuances on WMDs in Iraq, the presence of
al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iran, and the eagerness of people in the Middle East to be
Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, special forces and intelligence personnel -
critical elements in stabilization and counter-insurgency efforts - were
withdrawn for seemingly more useful service in Iraq. Many critical projects
such as building the Afghan army were left to private contractors whose results
were as invisible as the hand that guided them. Consequently, the Afghan army
is poorly trained, unmotivated and ineffectual against the Taliban. This has
set the stage for sending in more and more US troops.
The administration rebuffed Iranian overtures for a rapprochement that would
have proved beneficial in the "war on terror", preferring instead to keep
regime change there on the agenda. Relations worsened and cooperation on
stabilizing post-invasion Iraq was delayed and plagued by mistrust.
Developing the government of Hamid Karzai was highly limited, inconsistent as
it was with the priorities of the Bush administration in Iraq, uncomfortably
resonant as it was with the ill-fated "nation-building" of the Bill Clinton
administration in Somalia. The vacuum has been gradually filled by the
resurgent Taliban ever since. They now control over one-third of the country
and may be so ensconced as to make the recently launched counter-insurgency
campaign a hundred billion bucks short and six years late.
Once embarked on, wars are beclouded by stirring exaltations of honor, pithy
quotes from bold commanders of yester-year, partisan entreaties and
condemnations, and various emotional tides sweeping the public. Amid so much
cant and rhetoric the original purpose of the war can be lost. The first
casualty is said to be the truth; the second might well be remembering that
wars should increase national security.
The war aimed to destroy al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that sought
to harm American citizens in and out of the United States. The initial campaign
in Afghanistan drove al-Qaeda across the frontier where it has enjoyed
sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. However, the lengthy US presence in
Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq have bolstered support for Islamist
militancy throughout much of the Middle East and in parts of the Muslim
diaspora in Western Europe.
The US and other nations have been reasonably successful in interrupting
communications and money transfers between al-Qaeda along the Afghan-Pakistani
frontier, but al-Qaeda has grown from a small organization to a widespread
social movement that no longer needs the old al-Qaeda leadership.
The Islamic world is even more disposed to see the United States as hostile to
their religion and bent on dominating the region. The US has weakened the
governments of generally supportive countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia by
augmenting domestic anger over their rulers' linkage to US meddling. The
long-term possibilities are staggering and greatly harmful to American foreign
As part of the "axis of evil", Iran was very much a target of US plans. But the
wars have removed two enemies of Iran (Saddam and the Taliban) and
substantially increased Iranian influence in the region. Leaders and parties
close to Iran have come to control the Iraqi government, as was predictable in
a country with a Shi'ite majority and political movements long tied to Iran.
In Afghanistan, Iranian influence in western provinces has grown, though in a
manner that has probably brought more stability than found in other parts of
the country. And throughout the Middle East, Iran has been able to play to the
Arab street by pointing out the support of Arab rulers for the United States.
Finally, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ensnarled the military in long
conflicts that have cost the lives of thousands of young Americans and inched
the country toward fiscal calamity. In so doing, they have also weakened
American security. Stirring exaltations and pithy quotes can do nothing to
Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military
history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and
The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to
Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com.