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Bahbah: The U.S. Botched its Post-9/11 Policies

posted on: Sep 11, 2021

Bahbah: The U.S. Botched its Post-9/11 Policies
Photo Credit: Ray Stubblebine / Reuters

By: Bishara A. Bahbah / Arab America Featured Columnist

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a time period to evaluate whether the United States’ reactions and policies to the rare attacks on U.S. soil were effective and what lessons it should have learned.

Having emerged, a decade earlier, as the sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attacks on U.S. soil on 9/11/2001 by a group of resourceful terrorists, took an overly confident and unprepared nation, by complete surprise. 

Even though most of these terrorists originated from a friendly country, Saudi Arabia, they acted independently.  They were radicalized by Islamic fanatics, Al-Qaeda, an organization led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national based in Afghanistan.  These terrorists had acquired extensive lethal and combat expertise in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 attacks were uncommon in comparison to most terror attacks

  • The terrorists daringly targeted, with inordinate precision, the superpower of the world – the United States.
  • They selected strategic and highly recognized symbols of American power as their targets – the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  These targets projected the economic, financial and military prowess of the United States and the West.
  • They used passenger planes full of people and fuel – not cars, buses, or missiles – as their stealth weapon of choice to attack their targets.
  • They inflicted the highest number ever of American civilian or military casualties in one day on U.S. soil.  The casualties of about 3,000 people was even more than the 2,403 deaths resulting from the massive areal Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that triggered the entry of the United States in World War II. 

If those terrorists wanted attention to their sick cause or causes, they indisputably got it.  And, please no one should assume it was for the sake of Palestine because it was not.  Arab governments, dictators, and politicians – throughout the history of the conflict with Israel over Palestine – have used the Palestine question to further their own selfish objectives.  Palestine – its people, its plight, and the loss of their land – captured the hearts and sympathies of the Arab people, not necessarily their leaders.

The 9/11 attacks shocked and traumatized Americans.  They scarred many in a nation that viewed itself invincible from the turmoil around the world. 

As a result of this calamity, US security precautions spiked to protect Americans inside the United States and to confront any potential foreign threats.   Domestically, the United States created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which was created in the wake of 9/11.  DHS has the authority over the security of the traveling public in the United States. 

Americans reacted in different ways following 9/11.  Given that those involved in the attacks on U.S. soil were Muslims and most Arabs, it was no surprise that Muslims and Arab-Americans became the target of hate, harassment, and suspicion among Americans.

As an Arab American, even though I am not Muslim, between 2001 till 2008, the end of the George W. Bush administration, I was investigated by the FBI. I was taken aside and questioned by Homeland Security agents upon returning from every single overseas trip I had taken. And, finally, the IRS chimed in with a two-year politically motivated audit of my taxes. 

Harassing an entire ethnic community because of the actions of a few is misguided and vindictive.  What was scarier, however, was the talk of building internment camps – like the ones that forcibly housed Japanese Americans during World War II.

On the U.S. national level, many politicians began talking about exacting revenge and punishing the perpetrators of the attacks and those behind them.  In its haste to quench the thirst for revenge, the United States embarked on two massive wars targeting not only Iraq and Afghanistan but included clandestine activities in some 80 countries.  A recent study by The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated that the cost of the U.S.’s global war on terror post 9/11 stands at about $8 trillion on top of over 900,000 deaths on all sides.

Since the attacks were organized and executed by al-Qaeda, which is based in Afghanistan, there was no reason to send almost half a million U.S. troops to invade Iraq.  Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator however, he had nothing to do with the plan to attack the United States on 9/11.

Iraq was Israel’s problem, yet the Israelis cleverly fed the U.S. intelligence community and its neo-conservative political allies with erroneous information that Iraq allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them.  Iraq became suddenly an enemy of zealous and blood-thirsty policymakers in the United States.  The United States fell into Israel’s cunning trap.  Israel’s objectives have all along been to destroy Saddam Hussein and render Iraq powerless.

Israel got its wish at the expense of the Americans and Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was hanged. The U.S. dismantled the Iraqi army – a significant strategic error.  A reorganized Iraqi army, with U.S. guidance and professional assistance, could have prevented the utter security chaos that confronted the invading U.S. military. Twenty years later, with the loss of thousands of U.S. lives battling Iraqi opponents and, at some point, a well-entrenched radical Islamic insurgency, ISIS, Iraq has emerged as a country in shambles. Some 800,000 Iraqis have been killed or wounded not to mention the millions that were displaced and who fled their homes.  Politically, Iraq is now in the clasps of Iranian influence.  Iran has now become Israel’s arch-foe in the Middle East.

Afghanistan, which housed and protected al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks, was justifiably invaded by the United States and its allies. However, an invasion without an exit strategy is a strategic calamity.  President Joe Biden’s self-imposed deadline to leave Afghanistan at the end of August was a catastrophe.

Admittedly, after 20 years, the American public and politicians have become weary of the never-ending foreign wars.  However, because of the Biden administration’s haste and lack of preparedness, U.S. forces withdrew based on an imaginary deadline presumably set by the previous U.S. administration.  Withdrawing U.S. forces were immediately replaced by al-Qaeda forces. 

Idiotically, the U.S. left behind billions of dollars of military equipment and weaponry.  According to the website “@historyinpictures”, these weapons included more than 22,000 Humvees, 634 M1117 tanks, 169 armored personnel carriers, 42,000 trucks and SUVs, 64,363 machine guns, 16,035-night-vision goggles/devices, 358,530 assault rifles, among other military equipment.  This top-of-the-line U.S.-made weaponry will undoubtedly be used by al-Qaeda, its destruction was the main reason why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.  The leftover of this huge arsenal will end up being sold to China, Russia, rogue countries as well as terrorist organizations.

In short, the most important lessons that the U.S. should have learned from its post-9/11 policies and wars are:

  • The U.S. is not invincible.  It will continue to be vulnerable to sporadic terrorist attacks.
  • Actions and policies motivated by emotions – hate and fear – and

A shabby thought-out strategy will end up in failure:

  • Americans are quick to target an ethnic or religious community when faced with threats.
  • No invasion of another country can last indefinitely.  
  • Without an exit strategy, invading another country can be messy and costly.
  • Terrorist organizations – fueled by ideologies or religion – can reemerge from the ashes of defeat. Just look at the reincarnation of al-Qaeda.
  • Infiltration and intelligence work followed by targeted attacks are likely the most effective tools in combatting terrorist threats.

To surmise, has the United States learned these lessons? Time will only tell but, I am afraid that history tends to repeat itself. 

Prof. Bishara A Bahbah taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He was the editor in chief of the Jerusalem-based Al-Fajr Palestinian newspaper and served, with self-admitted failure, as a member of the Palestinian delegation on “Arms Control and Regional Security.”  He currently contributes on a regular basis to 15 newspapers and media outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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