By Robert Gaines and Scott Horton
Osama bin Laden is long dead, but his plans live on through American foreign policy.
In 2001, al Qaeda consisted of only 400 ideologues in the far corners of the world. After the recent regime change wars in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria, typical estimates place their membership at around 20,000. To top it all off, the American economy is out $5.6 trillion dollars for the whole failed project. This is not the legacy of a war to spread, or even protect, liberty and prosperity. Instead it is the legacy of an evil but gifted tactician, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Contrary to the popular misunderstanding of al Qaeda’s motives and strategy, bin Laden and his partner Ayman al Zawahiri were not trying to scare America away with the September 11th attacks. They were trying to provoke an overreaction. Al Qaeda’s leaders wanted the U.S. to invade Afghanistan in order to bog our military down, “bleed us to bankruptcy,” and force a worn-out, broken empire to leave the region the hard way, and permanently, just as they had done to the Soviet Union in the 1980s with American support. Only then could they hope to launch the revolutions they sought in their home countries without interference from the American superpower.
Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam warned in 1986 that the U.S. was on deck for expulsion from the region after the USSR. After observing the effectiveness of asymmetric war against a superior adversary, bin Laden, galvanized by the sanctions against Iraq and the U.S. occupation of the Arabian Peninsula, took up Azzam’s mission. In an early declaration aimed at the U.S., bin Laden noted that the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan helped the mujahideen defeat one of the most powerful militaries in history, and declared that he would seek to lure America to its same fate.
After decimating al Qaeda’s old guard at Tora Bora in 2001, the U.S. military could have returned home victorious. Instead, our leaders chose to follow bin Laden’s wishes by committing to an extended occupation and impossible nation-building mission – one which has lasted for more than 17 years.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq to overthrow the man bin Laden called a “socialist infidel,” Saddam Hussein, was a massive boon to the terror organization, decimating a secular government, paving the way for the creation of the first al Qaeda franchise there in 2004, radicalizing of a generation of new fighters, and proving the limits of U.S. influence in the Middle East.
America’s further regime change wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria have been strategic victories for the U.S.’s terrorist enemies beyond the former terrorist leader’s wildest dreams.
In his journals, bin Laden was optimistic about the 2011 Arab Spring, writing that it had “opened a door for jihadists.” He wouldn’t live to see the aftermath of the U.S. and NATO-backed regime change operation in Libya, but the country remains awash in members of Ansar Al-Sharia and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that the U.S. and NATO supported in the war. Both groups are led by veterans of al Qaeda in Iraq from Iraq War II.
The jihadists empowered by the regime change in Libya quickly spread to Mali, Chad, and Niger. A new generation of Sunnis with rifles and SOCOM operators are fighting now throughout the Maghreb, Sahel, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Saudi Arabia became bin Laden’s primary target for revolution when the king allowed the American military buildup there in preparation for the first Iraq war in 1990. As a key ally and major purchaser of American weapons, the kingdom has long appeared immune from the fate of Iraq or Libya. Now that the current regime has been racked by political purges and the financial burden of a war in Yemen, it’s not difficult to see how the legions of jihadists cultivated directly and indirectly by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia itself in the recent regional wars might return and wreak havoc there.
U.S. and regional allies’ covert intervention on behalf of the insurgency in Syria backfired horribly by helping to bring al Qaeda in Iraq back to life from its previous near-total destruction by Iraqi tribal leaders during the 2007 “Awakening” in Iraq. In 2011, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the “Islamic State of Iraq,” crossed into Syria to take part in the uprising against the Ba’athist dictatorship there. In Syria, AQI/ISI began calling itself Jabhat al Nusra, then Hayat Tahrir al Sham. It remains loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Their group now again numbers in the tens of thousands and for the time being remains ensconced in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
In 2013, the Iraqi-dominated faction split from al Nusra and Zawahiri’s al Qaeda. They returned to calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS) and consolidated control over eastern Syria. A year later, they conquered all of predominately Sunni western Iraq, declared an Islamist “caliphate,” and seized numerous fully stocked military bases left behind by the United States just three years before. As President Trump correctly said during the 2016 campaign, this disaster was the direct consequence of the previous administrations’ wars in Iraq and Syria. The loss of western Iraq to ISIS led to the launching of Iraq War III in 2014-2017 to destroy the ISIS caliphate and drive them out of western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Now that fight is over. Trump should ignore demands for the continuation of a policy which has only furthered Osama bin Laden’s original agenda.
Two wars expanded into multiple conflicts that have enveloped entire regions, costing thousands of American lives, requiring vast defense expenditures, and killing or displacing millions of civilians. Though Washington hawks insist upon indefinitely extending commitments abroad, President Trump understands the consequences of open-ended war.
For the dignity of servicemembers and for the future of the country, it is time to stop playing into al Qaeda’s hands. Trump should withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria, and end the counter-productive war on terrorism.
Robert Gaines is an IT Professional and ten-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard. He served with U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as an embedded liaison for ground combat operations.
Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, host of Antiwar Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, director of the Libertarian Institute, and the author of Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.