The Afghan War after bin Laden
With Osama bin Laden dead, can the United States finally bring an end to the Afghan War, its longest-lasting foreign military conflict? It’s an obvious question, since the invasion of Afghanistan was largely portrayed as an effort to catch the leader of the group that carried out the September 11 attacks.
Corporate media did sometimes address this issue. On ABC (5/4/11), Christiane Amanpour asked in regard to bin Laden’s killing, “And many people are saying, well, does this require the U.S. to leave Afghanistan right now?” She answered her question: “The job is not finished there. You’ll talk to the commanders. We’ll talk to them, it’s the Taliban there who are waging war against the United States, and that job is not finished.” When anchor Robin Roberts noted that many Arabs were calling for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan, Amanpour replied, “It looks like they won’t be able to yet.”
On NBC (5/8/11), the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller cited Pentagon sources: “Right now what they’re saying is that just getting Osama bin Laden does not change the calculus completely here. The Taliban are still a threat.” Time’s Richard Stengel echoed her: “Well, the big picture is the military folks are telling Obama, ‘Look, our biggest fear is we’ve actually made advances over there,’ right?… ‘And I don’t want you to pull back now.’”
CBS’s Katie Couric (60 Minutes, 4/15/11) asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “What would you say to the majority of Americans who say, now we’ve got bin Laden, now it’s time for the troops to come home?” Gates replied: “I would say that we are getting the upper hand. We have over the last 18 months put in place, for the first time, the resources necessary to ensure that this threat does not rebuild, does not reemerge once we’re gone.” He called the idea of withdrawing troops ahead of the Pentagon’s schedule “premature.”
What was missing from these and most other corporate media discussions of bin Laden and Afghanistan was any recognition of the part that country played in the Al-Qaeda leader’s strategic vision. For bin Laden, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was not a threat to his plan for the triumph of his brand of right-wing Islam—it was the central element of that plan.
Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, was one of the few journalists based in the West to interview bin Laden, spending three days with him in the mountains of Afghanistan in 1996. Atwan told how bin Laden explained his long-term strategy in a 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview (8/24/07):
He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East and to their Muslim worlds, where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson.
According to Atwan, bin Laden expressed disappointment with the pullout of U.S. troops from Somalia:
He told me, again, that he expected the Americans to send troops to Somalia, and he sent his people to that country to wait for them in order to fight them. They managed actually to shoot down an American helicopter where 19 soldiers were killed, and he regretted that the Clinton administration decided to pull out their troops from Somalia and run away. He was so saddened by this. He thought they would stay there so he could fight them there. But for his bad luck, according to his definition, they left, and he was planning another provocation in order to drag them to Muslim soil.
In a video message released in 2004 (WashingtonPost.com, 11/1/04), bin Laden recalled his “experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers as we alongside the Mujahedeen bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” He suggested that it would be easy to do the same thing to the United States:
All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedeen to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies.
Bin Laden cited estimates that the September 11 attacks, which cost Al-Qaeda $500,000, had cost the United States more than $500 billion in destruction and military expenditures—“meaning that every dollar of Al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars.” He noted that insurgents “recently forced Bush to resort to emergency funds to continue the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan, with Allah’s permission.”
Surely the fact that bin Laden’s explicit strategy was to bog the United States down in expensive wars in Muslim countries has a bearing on whether to continue these wars. But the central role the Afghan War and other Mideast conflicts played in bin Laden’s plan to undermine the U.S. was virtually never mentioned in discussions of whether his death meant that U.S. troops could come home.
One prominent exception was Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein (5/3/11), who wrote a column around Al-Qaeda expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ contention that bin Laden was “enormously successful”:
Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do—and, more to the point, what he thought he could do—was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before.
What bin Laden learned from his fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Klein wrote, was that “superpowers fall because their economies crumble, not because they’re beaten on the battlefield,” and that they “are so allergic to losing that they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand.”
But, noted Klein, “it isn’t quite right to say bin Laden cost us all that money…. We didn’t need to respond to 9/11 by trying to reshape the entire Middle East, but we’re a superpower, and we think on that scale.” He concluded: “We can learn from our mistakes.”
Rachel Maddow, citing Klein, made a similar argument on her MSNBC show (5/3/11):
Osama bin Laden’s stated goal for the 9/11 attacks was to cause us to spend ourselves into oblivion. His goal was to do something cheap and radical and traumatizing that would cause us to react in a way that bankrupted us. So that what they couldn’t take down by force or by ideological competition, we would take down ourselves by panic.
CNN talkshow host Eliot Spitzer (In the Arena, 5/3/11) also stressed the huge costs of the reaction to the September 11 attacks: “One economist estimates that 9/11 cost the U.S. economy a total of $2.5 trillion, which is roughly similar to our tally…. These huge expenditures have had profound effects on the way we live our lives.” Turning to Richard Quest, “CNN’s money guru,” Spitzer said of bin Laden: “He has changed our priorities, and that may be one of the biggest impacts he ever had. Do you think he wanted that?”
Quest responded: “Of course he did. That was all part of the plan. The plan was to bring down capitalism as we know it.” But Quest stressed, in regard to the money the U.S. has spent in reaction to September 11, “you have no choice…. You had to spend the money. The war was not chosen, the war was brought to your doorstep.”
Surely, if bin Laden could follow the discussion of his death in U.S. media, he would be much happier with Quest’s take than with Klein’s.