© EPA/Yuri Gripas
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” President George W Bush declared during his Congressional address ten days after the September 11th attacks. ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. The ensuing war had a grand design. The war was about more than getting Osama bin Laden and al Qaida. America’s goal was to remake the Middle East.
Two years after September 11th it seemed that the United States and allies like the UK, Canada and Australia had the momentum. The Anglosphere had liberated Kabul and Baghdad. The Israelis defeated the Palestinian’s Second Intifada. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair marginalized Yasser Arafat in favor of career kleptocrat Makmoud Abbas. The Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board led by Neocon Richard Perle openly talked about seizing Saudi oil fields for the kingdom’s complicity in the September 11th attacks.
But by 2006 President Bush’s grand plan for change in the Middle East was stalled. In Afghanistan the Taliban never really went away. By the end of the year more that 3000 were killed in fighting. Iranian backed Hezbollah battled Israel to a standstill and Hamas took over Gaza after the Israelis pulled out in 2005. After the initial liberation of Iraq, the nation devolved into a three way Civil War and Operation Iraqi Freedom dragged on and on.
The long-term enemy in Iraq was a troika of Saddam holdouts in the Suni Anbar province and Baghdad, Iranian backed Shia militias in the south, and al-Qaida. During five years of war the United States relearned the art of counterinsurgency operations. As such an Iraqi constitution was written and ratified, elections held, and a government formed. The Sunni insurgents formed Anbar Awakening during the summer of 2006, and turned on al-Qaida. In the new year president Bush ‘surged’ five brigades to the Baghdad area to secure the city once and for all. At the same time the rebuilt Iraqi army gradually took the field. In March of 2008 the Shia led government unleashed that army on the Iranian backed Shia militias in Basra and forced them to the negotiating table. The Iraq war was won.
But at what cost? In five years of war the United States lost about 4,500 dead and 40,000 wounded. About 150,000 Iraqis were killed in the war. President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed Saddam had huge stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction. This was not so and that fact undermined the war and faith in both leaders. Bush and Blair are both pariahs in their own political parties.
Over the last 20 years Iran slowly extended its influence in the Middle East. Democratic Iraq now maintains close ties with the Mullahs in Tehran. The Islamic Republic is also intimately involved in Assad’s Baathist Syria. Through Syria and Lebanon Iran arms its proxy, Hezbollah. The terrorist organization boasts a trained army of thousands and a missile arsenal of tens of thousands. It seems an existential war between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran is in the offing.
Insurgent remnants in Iraq retreated and reorganized, eventually becoming ISIS. In 2014 ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria until being defeated by an alliance of convenience that included Iraqi sectarian groups, the Syrian Arab Army and the United States. Today ISIS remnants are in Afghanistan. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 plunged Syria into bloody civil war. Revolutionaries toppled President Mubarak in Egypt and elected the Muslim Brotherhood to lead, only to see that government overthrown by the military.
For all the talk of quagmires and endless war, the United States and allies did hit upon a way of war that worked. In Afghanistan American Special Forces and CIA paramilitary teams combined with the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban rebels. Their weapons were SOFLAM man portable lasers that could guide aerial munitions on target, and briefcases of cash to bribe local warlords. The United States used this system again in 2006-2007 when Ethiopia overthrew the Islamist al-Shabab terrorist organization in Somalia. And in 2003 a few brigades of American paratroopers working with the Kurdish Peshmerga militia took northern Iraq from Saddam.
After their failure to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon the Israelis developed wonder weapons like the tank mounted Trophy anti-missile system. Hamas’s rocket barrages are met in the air by Iron Dome launched interceptors. Israel has developed and deployed Arrow anti-ballistic missile batteries should Iran attack. Mossad agents have smuggled tons of documents out of Iranian nuclear facilities and even assassinated the head of Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has waged a covert war against Iranian infrastructure in Syria, bombing hundreds of targets. The Israeli Defense Force has trained endlessly for urban and mountain combat against Hezbollah. The next war will be to the hilt.
Twenty years after President Bush’s tough talk on terror, America bugged out of Afghanistan and left behind hundreds of Americans, Afghan allies and $85 billion worth of military equipment. The Taliban makes a grand show of parading in American uniforms and vehicles. Many have been shipped to Iran. America’s abandonment of Afghanistan is like Dunkirk, but without the triumphant evacuation.