Two decades of the War on Terror’: the Western invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its consequences

Irang Bak explores the American role in the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing “war on terror” and we speak to Ameen Nemer about the relationship between the US and the Saudi regime.  

The US launched a military invasion in Afghanistan with its Western allies including Britain, following the 9/11 attack in New York and Washington DC. George W. Bush and the Neo-cons were eager to portray Afghanistan as a terrorist hotbed and the West as entitled to invade the country to seek “justice” for the 9/11. Bush claimed that the US would hunt down Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, together with the Taliban movement and other terrorist networks in Afghanistan. 

By the time of the US invasion in 2001, war had already been ravaging the country for decades. When the Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the pro-Soviet government, the US sought to counteract the spread of Soviet influence in Central Asia by funding and arming the Mujahideen. The intervention of the world’s two superpowers drove one of the poorest nations in the world to extreme poverty, insecurity and near total destruction. 

However, the invasion of Afghanistan was merely the beginning of a road to the invasion of Iraq, attempting to enforce US domination of the region and demonstrate its military might to its allies and potential state competitors. In 2002 in his infamous “axis of evil” speech, Bush said, “states like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” And added that “all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

This was a manifestation of what the US elite and its right wing politicians have been eager for since the end of the Cold War. A fanatical group of right wing politicians in and around the White House launched the “Project for the New American Century” in 1997. The aim was to secure US domination of the world order by addressing the concern that its economic power was in decline relative to the rise of European and Japanese competitors.  

The group included key figures in the Bush administration such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. They argued that removing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and securing its oil resources was crucial for the profit of the US empire. They demanded war against Iraq as a prelude to attacking other “rogue states” to demonstrate the US military power.

A defence document released in September 2000 states that “the United States faces no global rival… There are, however, potentially powerful states dissatisfied with the current situation and eager to change it… Up to now, they have been deterred from doing so by the capability and global presence of American military power. But, as that power declines, relatively and absolutely, the happy conditions that follow from it will be inevitably undermined.”

The rhetorics of the “war on terror,” seeking justice for 9/11, weapons of mass destruction and punishing the “rogue states” were all a very convenient lie to wage wars for the global dominance of the US imperialism and its profit. What followed these lies was a total devastation of the people’s lives in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other states. 

The post-9/11 wars led to the displacement of at least 59 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. Although the actual number of civilian deaths will be unlikely to be discovered, it ranges from hundreds of thousands to millions. The “war on terror” rained bombs over cities and villages killing civilians, destroyed much of the social infrastructure, led to the collapse of economies and nourished a fertile ground for the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria. 

Detainees faced horrific treatment at the US base in Guantanamo Bay Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Invasion of Afghanistan

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US launched a series of bombing campaign and invasion against Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government in October 2001. The Taliban movement emerged in US/Pakistan funded refugee camps in Pakistan in 1994. Despite its ultra-conservative and reactionary nature, the Taliban drew support largely from the rural population of Afghanistan, who wanted to see an end to decades of war, insecurity and corruption. 

Afghanistan was already a desperately poor and war ravaged country. Ten years of Soviet invasion from 1979 that ended with its withdrawal resulted in at least half a million Afghan deaths and 5 to 7 million people displaced internally and internationally. Even before the Soviet invasion, only roughly 2 percent of the land could be farmed with irrigation and most of the families made just enough to eat. 90 percent of the population lived in rural villages. Now, nearly two decades of invasion and the civil war that followed has made Afghanistan one of the poorest countries in the world.

However, the Western invasion did not bring peace, prosperity and democracy to the Afghans. While bombings continued in rural areas, poverty and insecurity haunted ordinary Afghans, especially women and children. As anthropologist Saba Mahmood rightfully questions, “why were conditions of war, (migration, militarisation) and starvation (under the mujahideen) considered to be less injurious to women than the lack of education, employment and most notably, in the media campaign, western dress styles (under the Taliban)?”

According to one estimate, the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath cost the US $2.3tn, which is Afghanistan’s 575 years’ worth of pre-invasion GDP. However, most of this money was never spent for ordinary Afghans. Two decades have passed since the invasion, but 90 percent of the Afghans lived on less than $2 a day, while the Western aid consisted of 43 percent of GDP.

There were barely any schools built, especially in the rural areas where the vast majority of the population lived. Parents were reluctant to send their daughters to school in fear of the lawlessness and insecurity where the warlords ruled. Only a tiny portion of the Afghans who lived in Kabul and large cities benefited from aid, many of whom worked for foreign NGO related jobs and embassies. Even so, non-Afghan NGO workers received 20 times more than their Afghan colleagues who worked in the same office. 

Opium harvests flourished under the pro-US Afghan government, where the warlords encouraged poverty stricken farmers to grow poppies and produce heroin. The profit harvested from the drug trade went directly into the pockets of these warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was the main ally to the Western forces and the vice president in Ashraf Ghani’s government. Dostum’s massive mansion in Kabul boasted a luxurious lifestyle equipped with a private pool, spa and indoor gardens.

While Western forces were raining bombs over villages, those who were captured under terrorism charges faced no different fate. Many ordinary Afghans who had nothing to do with Taliban or al Qaeda were captured for bounties. They were subjected to state of the art methods of torture, the likes of which were exposed through Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In fact, the whole premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it trained al Qaeda members with biochemical weaponry was a direct invention from torture. 

In November 2001, a Libyan national Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was captured by the Pakistani agents. He had been in charge of a mujahideen training camp in Afghanistan and was interrogated by the Americans and later tortured by the Egyptian security after the US handed him over. Al-Libi testified to the Egyptians under torture that Saddam Hussein’s regime provided training to al Qaeda members whom later carried out attacks in 9/11. Al-Libi recanted his testimony later, but his statement provided critical justification of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. 

Destruction of Iraq

Saddam Hussein’s government fell in April 2003 as the Western troops entered to control Bagdad after its initial advance on 21 March 2003. A new puppet government was propped up by the US along the sectarian lines which was handed over the power. However, the invasion and the destruction that followed the resistance to the occupation left Iraq in total ruins, and the ordinary Iraqis were left to suffer. 

Western invading forces met resistance and insurgencies from the very start, and civil war broke out in 2006. Between the period of March 2003 and March 2005, 24,865 civilians were killed, and the US was responsible for 37 percent of them. The war displaced two million Iraqis internally and internationally, and approximately 11 million are in a dire need of humanitarian aid. 

How was Iraq’s social infrastructure prior to the invasion? Iraq’s healthcare system during the 70s and 80s was considered to be the most advanced in the Middle East. During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime was able to offer a limited level of social security to the Iraqis, largely thanks to the massive oil revenue. According to UNICEF, 92 percent of Iraqis prior to the invasion had access to safe water. An Iraqi infant with dysentery had only one in 600 chances of dying in 1990. This has now become one in 50. 

Iraq’s healthcare system had already been weakened by sanctions imposed by the West. According to the Washington Institute, some estimate that between 1993 and 2003, the funding of healthcare in Iraq decreased by as much as 90 percent. The embargo on Iraq after the invasion resulted in the lack of medicine and the subsequent deaths of thousands of Iraqis due to simple medical conditions, such as common infections and diarrhoea. The occupation resulted in massive destruction of social, economic infrastructure and fabric, and collapse in clean water distribution systems and energy supplies.

Corruption also has played a major role in this ongoing collapse of infrastructure. Corruption in Iraq became a systematic problem during the 1990s. This was a direct result from the sanctions imposed against Iraq by the US, which led to the collapse of Iraqi Dinar, the growth of the informal “grey economy” and increased smuggling. 

The portion of the informal economy in Iraq increased to an estimate of 35 percent of the country’s GDP after a decade of sanctions. This percentage almost doubled to a staggering 65 percent of GDP following the 2003 invasion and years of US occupation. The occupation forces intentionally implemented and pursued measures that led to the rise of the informal economy and corruption in order to strengthen their control and provide profit to the American corporations and business networks. 

The Neocons’ goal was to establish and re-strengthen the world order dominated by the US with its superior military power. In order to achieve this, regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s Baathist state needed to be eliminated. This necessity was due to the fact that his regime crossed the line by invading Kuwait and thus imposing a threat to one of US’s most valued allies in the region, Saudi Arabia. Thus Neocon’s neoliberalism promoted “regime change” that would force a free market economy under its sphere of influence in Iraq and implant an American model of pluralist democracy. 

What this meant in reality was reducing the minimum wage, removing key tariffs on imported goods, enforcing a programme of privatisation of public enterprises, hosting foreign companies to enter Iraq with full rights to repatriate profits and eliminating the Baathist system of graduated income tax, cutting corporation tax from 40 percent to 15—the same rate paid by the mass of Iraqis. 

When the US occupation forces invaded, the first action they took instinctively was to cancel what was left of the social welfare system. The so-called de-baathification drove tens of thousands of Iraqis and their families into poverty. The so-called “nation building” turned out to be a total hoax. Many Iraqis fell victim to the rise of sectarianism as the world had witnessed after the expansion of ISIS in vast regions of Iraq and Syria from 2014. The massacre committed by the US forces in Fallujah and systemic exclusion of Sunnis in Iraq along the sectarian line drove a huge portion of the population into despair. ISIS grew out from this resentment, inciting sectarian division, violence and resistance to the Western occupation. They recruited many of Saddam Hussein’s officers and soldiers to their ranks. In contrast to the claim made by the US and its allies, the West did not eradicate terrorism. They created a fertile ground for its birth and growth. 

Hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Center, New York on September 11 2001. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Where now?

The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was a total failure of the US led foreign intervention. The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan after a humiliating withdrawal of the US and Western forces after the fall of the US backed government. Iraq is now closer than ever to Iran, which the US and its major watchdog of the region Israel considers to be their greatest threat to regional security. Having spent more than 8 trillion US dollars and losing almost 10 thousand soldiers with additional tens of thousands mamed during the period of 20 years, the US lost its military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The US withdrawal from the region left a partial power vacuum, which is now being filled up by other competing global powers such as Russia and China, and regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. These powers are engaging in their own battles and wars according to their needs in places across the region such as Yemen, Syria and Libya while the humanitarian crisis continues for the ordinary people. 

Unfortunately, even with all the shifts and changes that took place in the region during the last 20 years, the “War on Terror” is still continuing. It is still being waged not in a foreign territory far abroad, but rather inside your own borders against your own people. The same rhetoric of Islamophobia that was utilised to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq is now being used to persecute migrants and Muslims in the US and Europe. For this reason, the war on “War on Terror” is still not over. 

Mutual support between the US government and the Saudi ruling family goes back a long way, Arabian activist Ameen Nemer told Middle East Solidarity. It has entrenched the authoritarian monarchy and had devastating consequences for the Afghan people. 

Can you tell us about the background to the US-Saudi relationship? 

Investing by the Saudi regime schools and mosques around the world goes back to the Cold War as the US asked for support to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its influence in the Islamic countries. It was only after the 9/11 attacks that the US started to criticise the Saudis’ work spreading their Wahhabi ideology globally. George W.Bush accused Saudi Arabia of being a “‘fertile ground for terrorist fundraising” on September 2, 2004. This pushed Saudi Arabia to hold its first municipal elections in 2005 in response to Bush’s rhetoric about “democratisation” in the Middle East. However, this initiative did not continue, since free and fair elections would lead the US losing its influence on Saudi Arabia which it cannot afford.

How did the Saudi regime support the US against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and what were the consequences within Saudi Arabia? 

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, was one of the Saudi officials who had supported the mujahideen financially to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Through the CIA, the US also provided them with training and weapons. Many Afghans worked in Saudi Arabia in different sectors including construction and restaurants since the 80s, and many Saudis travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union’s forces.

The Saudis (especially religious figures) preached for almost two decades, calling for people to fight the ‘infidels’ (the Red Army) in Afghanistan. Later, they simply directed their sentiments towards a new enemy, the US army. This explains why 15 out of 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks were in fact Saudis. While there was no social media early in the new millennium, people used to share messages through Bluetooth and SMS messages to show their solidarity with Afghanistan against the US invasion in 2001. One of these messages was “Buy tameez [traditional Afghan bread] and benefit the Afghans, don’t buy a pizza and benefit the Americans”.

Why did the US government continue to support the Saudi regime, despite the September 11 attacks? 

Both countries need each other for different reasons. Saudi Arabia relies on the US for protection from its own people. As an imperial power, the US relies on different players and Saudi Arabia is one of them. The regime was also a longstanding agent to the British Empire, starting in the 1900s against the Ottoman Empire even before the kingdom was established in 1932. It continued to serve American interests during the 20th century, including in South America, during civil war in Yemen during the 1960s and 70s, and the Nicaraguan civil war in the 1980s.

After British forces withdrew from the Gulf in the 1970s, US President Richard Nixon’s administration saw Iran (pre-revolution) and Saudi Arabia as two countries that could become the major elements of stability. In other words, they would serve the American interests. Britain has not lost all its influence in the Gulf, however and in April 2018, a UK Naval Support Facility was officially opened


Now the US is getting back into the negotiation with Iran regarding the nuclear deal which Saudi Arabia opposed during Obama’s and cherished when Trump withdrew from it. During Trump’s presidency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) said in an interview that he wanted to take the battle inside Iran’s territory adding that there was no chance for a dialogue with Iran because they have a radical ideology. His tone totally changed in an interview in April 2021 when he described Iran as a neighbour country. Saudi foreign policy is to a great extent a reflection of who is inside the Oval Office, with a little space to manoeuvre. 

Has US policy on selling arms to Saudi Arabia changed following Joe Biden’s election?  

After the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi by the Saudi regime, Trump continued selling them arms, justifying this with claims the Saudis would buy weapons from China and Russia if the US did not sell. Biden did not keep his promise to punish MBS either. The US Security National Advisor and Biden’s aide, Jake Sullivian, met MBS in late September 2021. In early Nov 2021, the regime got its first major arms deal under Biden with a purchase of air-to-air missiles.

Besides missiles, are there other areas that the Saudi regime is expanding economic collaboration with the US? 

In recent years the Saudi regime has invested massively in the sports and entertainment industry. Some of this is “sportswashing”, such as the purchase of Newcastle United by a sovereign wealth fund chaired personally by MBS. But there is clearly a new Saudi direction of resources towards the entertainment industry through events like Riyadh Season and dancing and drinking by the beach in Jeddah. All this has been sponsored by Saudi princes secretly and underground as Wikileaks Cables showed in 2010, but it is publicly on the ground now. The Islamic scholar Omar Al Muqbil was arrested in 2019 simply because he spoke out against the policies of the General Entertainment Authority. 

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