REMEMBER the neocons? Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and their hangers-on in the right-wing think tanks of Washington? They were the men — nearly all of them men — who provided the somewhat politically vacant George W. Bush with an ideology. The American nationalists who revelled in displays of US power. They dreamt of what they called a “new American century” in which democracy would flourish in a unipolar US-led world.
The 9/11 attacks gave the neocons exactly what they needed to justify deploying the US army all over the world. Some of the US targets, such as Iraq, quite demonstrably had nothing to do with 9/11 but that wasn’t the point: America’s generals were told to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and put democracy in its place. Indeed, so confident were the neocons of US superiority they believed democracy would not really need to be installed: the Iraqi people, yearning for US-style freedoms, would do it on their own initiative. As you may remember, there was much talk of how America had become an imperial power, no longer keeping the world safe from communism but rather trying to recreate the world in its own image.
Twenty years on, the neocons have been totally discredited. Their delusions have been exposed and the withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the US diminished and weak. The fact that the world’s greatest military power has been seen off by a militia made up of relatively ill-equipped religious radicals means this US defeat has profound implications.
The US’s wound will remain raw and open for years to come. It is difficult to imagine how the clerical dictatorship now being installed in Afghanistan will ever be toppled. Certainly, there is no reason to believe Afghan Taliban leaders will be interested in genuine elections that could threaten their power. And even if Afghan soil were used to launch another 9/11-scale attack on the US, it is no longer possible to imagine the US responding by invading. Nor would any of the traditional US allies in Nato be willing to join such an enterprise. Unless they self-destruct, the Afghan Taliban can look forward to an indefinite period in power, a constant reminder of US weakness.
America’s wound will remain raw and open for years to come.
America’s most dependent allies must now be highly anxious. For years Israel in general and Benjamin Netanyahu and his neocon allies in particular tried to goad the US into invading Iran. Trump nearly opened hostilities but with just a few minutes to go before an air strike thought better of it and pulled out. It is now clear that the so-nearly successful campaign to get the US to confront Iran militarily was the closest the neocons will ever come to reducing Iran to the sort of strife-ridden impotence of Iraq, Syria and Libya. Taiwan too must be recalibrating its risk analysis wondering just how much all those security guarantees it has from Washington are worth now.
All this means that the 9/11 attacks were amongst the most extraordinary military actions in history. Just 19 men managed to do more to weaken the US than Nazi Germany and communist Russia combined. With neocons cheering all the while, the US spent trillions of dollars invading two countries and losing in both. Despite Washington’s massive efforts — which spared nothing in terms of money and military effort — Iraq and Afghanistan are now more influenced by two regional powers: Iran and Pakistan respectively, than they are by the US. When he was planning the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden argued that the violent jihadists needed to change their strategy, opening up front lines with the far enemy not the near enemy. But he cannot have imagined that one single attack would have such far-reaching consequences. And how much did 9/11 cost? Just $400,000. Never in military history has so small a sum been spent to such monumental effect.
And what does all this mean for Pakistan? The security establishment is now congratulating itself for understandable reasons: the act of installing the Afghan Taliban whilst simultaneously taking billions of dollars of US money was a remarkable achievement. But what price will be paid? There are many in the US who would dearly like to punish Pakistan. But in all likelihood, they won’t. In the months ahead Pakistan will play an old game of, according to circumstances, saying it does, or does not, have influence over the Afghan Taliban.
More amazingly, some Pakistani officials are even arguing the US should put money into Afghanistan to help the movement that just vanquished it. But such manoeuvrings are only a minor power play. The most important fact governing these matters was established back in 1998. For as long as the Pakistani military remains the only bulwark against a jihadi takeover of the bomb, it can expect continued US support.
The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.