Bin Laden and the damage done

June 24, 2006

For almost five years now the United States and its allies have been fighting a war in Afghanistan, and for three years, another in Iraq. The second war, in Iraq, has the same foundation as the other — the events of September 11th, 2001, which saw the continental United States attacked for the first time in two centuries, and a death toll of over three thousand.

No-one could doubt back then then that the US would have to respond. No-one can fail to wonder why that response now has every appearance of having gone horribly wrong.

One can understand the rationale for the engagement in Afghanistan, using the proxy of the Northern Alliance, though personally I never really saw the sense of it. I thought the US administration delayed too long, dithered, even, in its response to 9/11. I’m no military expert, but it seemed to me that that was the time, if there ever was one, for the US to demonstrate the brute force of its military power.

The victim of an act of war, albeit by a non-state actor, the US had every right to strike back, as an affronted sovereign state, with the best means at its command. Rather than gear up for a ground war (and slowly, so slowly!), the US could have sent a flight of cruise missiles against targets in Kabul and Kandahar, once it became clear that bin Laden’s organisation was behind the attacks. It had the weapons to strike back, hard, from a distance, with impunity, without endangering the lives of its military. That’s for 9/11, the US could have said, and it’s just the beginning. You’ll never know what we’ll do next until we’ve done it.

That was the time to do it. In the first days, the world still shared America’s shock and grief. There would have been collateral damage, no matter how carefully targeted the strike. But the US would have weathered it. The world would have understood. Then the months went by. The initial sympathy wore off. Within weeks the anti-American chorus found its voice again and was singing its song, louder and yet more loudly, in the western media, never mind in the Middle East. By the time the US engaged, using ground troops, the world had lost its readiness to forgive. The bad stories started to emerge, and they never stopped.

Then came Iraq. Whatever its eventual outcomes, why it was, or what it might have been, that persuaded the Bush administration to embark on that mad adventure will be debated for decades. How to explain a strategic error of that magnitude? I suspect it was the shock of 9/11: it made the US administration momentarily lose its head, and listen to voices that should never have been heeded — voices embittered by Hussein’s ten years of making fools of the US and UN after the first Gulf War, and the very ‘incompleteness’ of that war itself. The US was utterly determined that no such attack should ever occur again. What’s the next great threat, post 9/11, the voices asked. They answered: an attack on the continental US by terrorists armed with WMD sourced from Iraq. The doctrine of pre-emption logically followed. Very well, said the US: we will take down the regime in Baghdad, so that no terrorist will ever be able to to arm itself with such weapons, and mount such an attack. It sounds crazy, but the US went a little crazy, in those days.

Three years later, the US and the Coalition of the Willing are desperately engaged in Iraq, trying to contain an insurgency whose nature, extent and sheer murderousness they never anticipated. (Cooler heads, looking at the ethnic and sectarian fault lines, long obscured by a tyrannical dictatorship, and in light of the experience of the Balkans, might perhaps have foreseen it.) At the same time, the Taleban are achieving an ominous and seemingly powerful resurgence in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to know what’s really happening — whether it is as bad as the media portray, or not. Bad news means good stories to the media; good news is no story at all. There is no reason, for reporters, to report good news; it does nothing for their reputations. Nor for proprietors: it’s simple maths. Bad news plus good stories equals sales, and therefore better returns on investment. There was never going to be dollar value in good news out of Iraq.

Perhaps the US should have realised what kind of press it would get. Perhaps it should have learned something from Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm — that there is a body of opinion in the west which will relentlessly pillory the US, no matter what it does, whatever its true purpose and intent. And its enemies read that kind of press, and feed into it, and feed off it. How encouraged al-Zarqawi must have been by reports from Robert Fisk and Juan Cole that he didn’t really exist, that the US invented him and his barbarities in order to justify its own evil.

Even so, and acknowledging that the good work by the Coalition goes virtually unreported, it’s no longer possible to avoid asking: can the Coalition realistically hope to achieve any of its ambitions in either Iraq or Afghanistan? It has accomplished democratic elections in both cases, true, but the raw will of the people, lacking institutions to support it, may count for little against the men with guns. It faces implacable enemies, ubiquitous in their presence as they are asymmetric in their tactics, and ferocious environments, whether in the streets of Baghdad or the mountain caves of Afghanistan. We should remember that it was the Taleban that won the bitter, hard-fought civil war in Afghanistan that followed the Soviet withdrawal, though they had little to do with actual resistance to the invaders. And in Iraq, the US has mis-stepped often enough, at Abu Ghraib, in Haditha, for its moral credentials — the only remaining justification for the invasion, in the absence (so far) of stockpiles of WMD — to come under serious question.

In a sense, this has been quite unfair. No military is perfect, and the US’, in particular, has been under hideous and unrelenting pressure. Some soldiers were always going to crack, as they have done in even the most just wars. But this has been a war fought under the klieglights, under the glare of media’s eye. Every error — real or confected — is spotlit, seized upon and relentlessly magnified. It was the US military itself that began the investigations into Abu Ghraib and Haditha, and the other instances of ROE-infringement. No matter: the media, thirsty for sensation, drank them in and endlessly replayed them. Just the other day, CNN announced a major feature on US war crimes in Iraq. It is not likely to run a similar piece on the barbarism of the insurgents. A few months ago, the mayor of Al Muthanna, where Australian troops are stationed, was quoted as saying post-Ba’athist Iraq’s main enemy was the media.

All of which brings us back to bin Laden. It was his dream and purpose, in planning the 9/11 attacks, to needle the US into Afghanistan, into the Islamic heartland, there to suffer the kind of defeat that the jihadis believed they inflicted on the Soviets. That defeat, as they dreamed it, led to the collapse of the godless Soviet Union. The crusader US, as they dreamed it, would suffer a similar defeat, and a similar collapse. It seemed insane at the time; but was it? I think bin Laden would be pleased with the results so far.

The US has been seriously damaged, in moral and material terms, by Iraq — the attack on which, as with Afghanistan, was engendered by a single cataclysmic event: the bin Laden-engineered 9/11. Its standing in the community of nations has suffered and its reputation tarnished, perhaps for decades. Its self-confidence has been shaken, and its outward projection as a nation imbued with and acting on the basis of the highest moral principles has been compromised. Anti-Americanism, always latent in some quarters of western opinion, and long at epidemic levels in the Middle East, has been hugely encouraged and enlarged. The perception that the US is now the greatest threat to peace in the world has been reflected in public opinion polls even in Australia. The US’ power no longer seems a sufficient base for its credibility in international politics, these days: witness its impotence in Europe. For the forseeable future, Iraq will be played and replayed against the US, against its being, its self-image, its policies and its relationships. In that sense the ultimate casualty of the US’ war on Iraq will be the US itself.

The needle and the damage done.

In the end, the histories may record, after all, that the United States fell into bin Laden’s trap. The cave-dwelling fanatic may, after all, have been smarter than he seemed. Whatever figleaves the US can find to cover its withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-behind regimes are likely to be much more to bin Laden’s liking and closer to his purpose than that of the US.

These are not easy things to write, and in everything I say here I hope to be proved wrong, now or in the future. But that’s the way it looks today, this cold winter morning, late June, the year 2006.



  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post. There’s a lot to chew on, here.

    I’ll have to come back and visit again when I have more coherent thoughts. It’s become one of those oceanic, unknowable subjects because it has so many angles… och, my head hurts already…

  2. I’d welcome your thoughts, j_p_z. I don’t like the conclusions I’m coming to, but you have to go where your thinking leads you.

  3. I have never considered myself an optimist (lawyers never are), but I do think there is some cause for hope on this. Like j_p_z I need to put in some ‘think time’

    If anything, an ‘ex-leftie’ like me is evidence that people can learn. I live in hope, anyway!

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