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Afghan War at 10, 9/11 at 10+: Did Osama bin Laden Win After All?

Posted: 10/07/11 07:12 PM ET

It's 10 years since our Afghan War began, and ten-plus years since 9/11.

Most Americans, according to two new polls, don't think we should be doing what we're doing in Afghanistan, or that the war effort has been worth it. Every week, there are major fiascoes in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden has found his eternal rest far beneath the surface of the Arabian Sea, courtesy of the U.S. Navy SEALs. So bin Laden still lost, right?

Yes. And no. Mostly no.

America's Afghan War began 10 years ago, as seen in this report of the strikes on Kabul. U.S. and U.K. air and special forces joined with Afghan Northern Alliance troops in the offensive just 26 days after 9/11.The report closes, tellingly, by citing mistakes made by previous foreign forces and U.S. insistence that it desires no deeper engagement.


Bin Laden, of course, is, on the one hand, a very definitive loser. For one thing, he is quite dead, killed in a daring Navy SEAL raid that ranks as one of the most outstanding operations in the history of American arms, and with his organizational cadre nearly shattered. For another, despite massive exertions, his dream of a caliphate embracing the Muslim world lies in tatters. Not one of the Arab governments he hated has fallen to fundamentalist Islam. The awakening sweeping the Arab world springs largely from far different roots. (With the obvious caveat that history plays out not in the space of a Tweet but over time in complex ways and the final outcome of this year's upheaval remains unclear.)

The cadre and leadership of al Qaeda have been decimated by America's intelligence war against it. Copycat organizations have sprung up, but seem to lack the global reach of the original.

And yet, Osama bin Laden may be the man who crashed the world. With a great deal of help from not unpredictable actions on the part of his enemies.

Even after watching video of his curiously unaesthetic Pakistan abode, viewing and listening to his messianic recordings, reading his statements and the accounts by others of his actions and life, it's still hard to know exactly how far-sighted a figure bin Laden was.

Did he see that his strike on 9/11 would prod America into undertaking not one but two massive military interventions? That it would destabilize the Middle East? That it would exact massive costs on the U.S. economy? That it would change American life?

If bin Laden had any sense of that, of how America's leadership was likely to react and the chain of causation that would bring, he knew that he was one of history's most successful agents of chaos long before the Navy finally came knocking on or rather down his door.

* Draining the economy and busting the budget. How much do the response to 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan Wars cost? It looks to be as much as $4 trillion. That includes the physical damage and immediate economic impact of the attacks, but the bulk of it by far is by the massive costs of the wars, future veteran care, and homeland security.

That doesn't include the cost of higher oil prices due to an increased geopolitical risk premium.

It's all far more than then Vice President Dick Cheney's assurance that Iraq would cost only $100 billion.

President Barack Obama commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in a variety of ceremonies.


Since the Bush/Cheney Administration decided to fund the wars on borrowed money, the Clinton/Gore budget surplus quickly turned into a big budget deficit.

The direct cost also does not include the illusory housing and financial boom that the administration fostered in the wake of the shock of 9/11. That turned so disastrously bust that the entire world has been shaken to its roots.

* Destabilizing the Middle East and fostering a new generation of jihadists. Saddam Hussein was one of history's great villains. He was also the regional check on Iran's ambitions, having fought a long, large, and largely inconclusive war with the ayatollahs.

He had nothing to do with 9/11, but Dick Cheney and George W. Bush wanted him out, so 9/11 and some spun-up intel provided enough of a pretext to invade.

Removing Saddam empowered Iran, both within Iraq -- which seems to have come as a surprise to the invasion's architects -- and within the region. A bolder Iran, with its traditional anti-Israel rhetoric, gave rise to Israel's most right-wing government in its history. Which in turn fed policies further isolating Israel from its neighbors and, of course, any accord with the Palestinians. Now Israel has been routed from its embassies in erstwhile friendly countries Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan.

As Israel has shifted right, America has moved with it such that the U.S. is no longer seen as the mediator of Middle East peace. Which led ultimately to the supposedly "anti-Israel" Obama, boxed by domestic politics into giving a very pro-Israel speech at the U.N., washing away many of the gains of his Cairo speech of 2009.

America has long been Israel's protector, at no little cost. Israel prevailed easily in the Six Day War of 1967. But in the Yom Kippur War of '73, the Israelis were on the verge of defeat until America intervened, resupplying them.

Embarrassed by last months very lengthy and very brazen Taliban raid on central Kabul, U.S. officials are blaming Pakistan for allegedly harboring a pro-Taliban group behind it. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admonished Pakistani officials about it. No admonishments for Afghan security forces who supposedly have their capital city well in hand?

The Soviets were on the verge of intervening on the Arabs' behalf with seven airborne divisions when the U.S. went to DEFCON 3. (DEFCON 5 is normal. We went to DEFCON 3 on 9/11. The only time it's ever gone as high as DEFCON was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Because the U.S. was willing to risk war with the Soviet Union in order to save Israel, Israel narrowly prevailed. That set Egypt on the path which ended with the fall of Mubarak. It also set Arab oil producers, absolutely furious, against the U.S., creating the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and leading to permanent big increases in the cost of oil and gasoline.

That was nearly 40 years ago, decades in which we've repeatedly vowed to end our dependence on foreign oil even as we've become ever more dependent.

Today there are new costs, in the form of a new generation of jihadists angry about America's massive bootprint in Arab lands.

General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan till his associates' rude remarks about Obama and other administration officials in Rolling Stone brought that tenure to a screeching halt, says that America was very ill-prepared for the Afghan War that emerged after the initial retaliatory take-down of the Taliban after 9/11.

And that the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved to be not only a massive distraction but also a huge recruitment spur for jihadists.

Did bin Laden foresee that we would over-react so massively and blindly to his attacks a decade ago?

"This really is not a very big deal," declared U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, formerly the Iraq ambassador during the Bush/Cheney Administration. "This isn't Tet," he said of the Taliban raids on the capital. No, it's not Tet, but it is obviously a big deal.

* Degrading Americans' quality of life and right to privacy. Is there anyone who doesn't fly on private jets who actually enjoys flying anymore? It used to an adventure.

Then there is the heightened surveillance, which we've come to take for granted.

The fear factor for Americans has led to an increased conservatism and, worse, a more radical conservatism marked by a desperate sort of ultra-nationalism, driving further imperial overstretch.

Of course, it didn't have to be this way.

We might not have ignored warnings of likely attacks inside the U.S.. And we might have reacted more intelligently, and no less resolutely, if the attacks came despite our greater precautions.

The U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century -- known also as the Hart-Rudman Commission for its co-chairs, former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman -- appointed by President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen in 1999, warned of major terrorist attacks within the U.S. But despite its bipartisan membership, and efforts by Hart, Rudman, and other commissioners to brief top officials, the commission's report was ignored by the new administration.

Indeed, on the very morning of 9/11, then National Security Advisor Condi Rice was scheduled to deliver an address on the supposed major threats to national security: Inadequate missile defense and rogue states such as, yes, Iraq and North Korea.

As it happened, Hart knew Rice fairly well. In 1985, he and I met with Rice at her Stanford University office to get her to join the advisory board of Hart's think tank, the Center for A New Democracy, which she did.

She's a nice person, a very intelligent person. But by 2001, she reflected the predilections of the Bush/Cheney White House.

And so it went.

Did bin Laden foresee all this? It's impossible to say. For one thing, the planning of 9/11 was underway before it was clear that Bush would become the only president of the modern era to lose the popular vote.

But Bush's election was certainly not unlikely. Many had expected it, and seen Al Gore as the underdog. And bin Laden had ample opportunity to study the man and the people behind him.

My guess is that he had plenty of time to work most of it out in his mind. But whether he did or not, he surely appreciated what he had wrought by the time the SEALs descended upon him.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.


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