Revisiting the war on terror, Afghanistan and the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri

There are numerous retrospectives available to mark the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather than regurgitate the manufactured sentimentality of official commemorations, it is better to examine the underlying lessons of the foreign policy decisions taken in the immediate aftermath of those attacks.

History always has contemporary relevance and ramifications. US officialdom gave the global war on terror a propaganda boost in recent months with the drone assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Allegedly the ‘number 2’ of Al Qaeda and plotter of the Sept 11 atrocity, he was killed on the orders of US President Joe Biden.

There are no tears for Zawahiri – his ideology was repugnant. He was actually a qualified surgeon, and by the time of his death, irrelevant to the politics of the region. Dismissed and disrespected by ISIS and other jihadist offshoots, his death will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem of ideologically inspired terrorism. Let us not join Washington in gloating over his death either – because malignant hypocrisy underlines US policies in the region.

Salafi jihadist groups are hardly an exclusively indigenous product, arising spontaneously from the Muslim majority nations. As Dave Mizner observes in his article on the rise of Islamist groups, the US and Britain have longstanding policies of deliberately cultivating and using violent ultrarightist jihadist groups. Socially regressive and with only a passing familiarity with the Quran, these organisations are not only instruments of US foreign policy, but are also instrumentalised into the stereotype of the ‘culturally backward’ Muslim Washington likes to criticise.

Amy Zegart, a political scientist writing in The Atlantic, writes about the challenges of teaching students about Sept 11, which they regard as long-ago history. She explains how she has to convey the contemporary relevance of an event that happened 21 years ago. It is commendable to have an historical perspective. Bearing that in mind, the road to Sept 11 began in the 1970s and 80s.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani writes that the deliberate cultivation of fanatical and ultrarightist Afghan rebels, to undermine and overthrow the 1978-79 Afghan socialist government, turned an anticommunist insurgency into a hotbed of extremist jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, ISIS and similar organisations trace their ideological lineage back to this effort, with the US using these fighters to reverse the gains of the Afghan revolution. This policy began before the 1979 Soviet intervention.

In the 1980s, then US President Ronald Reagan welcomed the political representatives of the Afghan mujahideen groups, while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan both joined the anticommunist crusade by sponsoring and arming their own proxy groups for the Afghanistan insurgency. Out of this cauldron of hatred grew what eventually became the Taliban, in the aftermath of the 1992 overthrow of the Afghan revolutionary government. As Ed Rampell wrote in the People’s World magazine, the US original sin in Afghanistan began in 1979, not Sept 11.

One of the rationales provided by Washington for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent assassination of Zawahiri, was complicity in the Sept 11 attacks. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was actually an exercise in a neo-colonial imperialism, the the US and Britain establishing a modern satrapy run by a kleptocratic elite. That is interesting, because there was a time when terrorism perpetrators were actually captured and convicted in federal courts.

In 1993, ultrarightist Islamist militants detonated a bomb at the World Trade Centre. While the bombing failed to bring down the twin towers, the intention was no different to the later Sept 11 atrocity. The perpetrators were captured, charged with murder and conspiracy, and convicted. This was done before anyone dreamt of the Patriot act, and with the cooperation of other nations.

Why was not the same done with Zawahiri, or Osama bin Laden? The US wanted to make a large blockbuster splash for the world’s media. Bragging about ‘taking out’ your opponents, like a mafia godfather, certainly generates publicity. Trials get bogged down in legal details, and do not make for gripping drama.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the early 1960s, Francis Gary Powers, flying a U2 spy plane through Soviet territory, was put on trial and the evidence of his guilt displayed to the world’s media by the Moscow authorities. Shot down and captured, his guilt as a CIA spy was conclusively established, exposing Washington’s evasions.

August this year was the first anniversary of the American retreat from Afghanistan, after a nearly 20 year occupation of that country. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon 1975, Kabul 2021 witnessed the ignominious defeat of powerful military force. It is high time to admit that this war on terror has failed to reduce terrorism, or make the world a safer place. In fact, the paranoid mindset and associated surveillance techniques accumulated by state power, has only resulted in creating the kind of authoritarian state we claim to oppose.

For a start, if President Biden was serious about implementing meaningful changes, he could start by stopping drone strikes, though his recent conduct suggests this prospect is remote. He could also stop Washington’s long-standing practice of arming and training ultrarightist Salafi militants, which generates the reservoir of hatred and political violence that led us to September 11.

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