Remembering 9/11: How the suicide attacks led to two vastly different wars
On Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda transformed the meaning of the word “hijacked” by flying four planes filled with terrified civilians and explosive J2 jet fuel into buildings packed with thousands of people and into a field in Pennsylvania. Rejoicing al Qaeda operatives listening to the unfolding slaughter of kafirs (infidels) in the heart of America dubbed the historic event “holy Tuesday.” Days later, President George W. Bush rose to the occasion and rallied the nation behind him when he stood at the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn and boldly proclaimed to his countrymen that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
The subsequent October-December 2001 invasion of Afghanistan — during which just 300 U.S. operatives leveraged anti-Taliban, horse-riding Uzbek Muslim Mongols led by a fierce warlord named Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum to topple the Taliban regime in just 60 days — was the high point of a global war dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom. Bush, who went to a mosque after 9/11 and acted supremely presidential by proclaiming that Islam was not the enemy, saw his popularity rating rise to an unprecedented 92 percent and surpass his father George H.W. Bush’s previous record high of 90 percent (following the 1991 Gulf War).
Democrats, Republicans and undecideds approved of the younger Bush’s presidency, which unified the grieving country in a way that seems impossible in today’s polarized America. Bush retained his high ratings until he diverted the unfinished war on the regrouping Taliban to socialist-Baathist, secular nationalist Iraq. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — a beret-wearing, Johnnie Walker whiskey-drinking dictator who received his weapons from the Soviets and used Whitney Houston hits as his campaign songs — was hardly a natural ally of the austere, turban-wearing Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalist jihadi, Osama bin Laden. The Saudi extremist bin Laden had volunteered to fight a holy war against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But the Bush administration conflated the two Arabs, who were enemies, into one nemesis who could be called “Osama bin Hussein” in an effort to “bundle” the war on the atomized al Qaeda organization (whose surviving members were hiding out in the wilds of Pakistan’s remote tribal zone) with the dictatorship in Iraq, whose greatest crime was invading Kuwait in 1990.
Thus was born the March 2003 “bridge too far” known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which the war on stateless al Qaeda fundamentalists diverted to a state dominated by cigar-smoking, secular Baathists who had nothing but disdain for bin Laden’s brand of radical Islam. This catastrophic invasion led the U.S. to counter-productively topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had served as a stable “firewall” against its mortal enemies, the Shiite Iranian ayatollahs (with whom Iraq fought the largest conflict on the planet since World War II in the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq War), and against the Sunni Saudi Wahhabi conservative fundamentalists.
The blundering 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled the long-ruling Baathists who belonged to the Sunni sect of Islam and empowered Iranian-linked Shiites in what has been dubbed “Operation Shiite Empowerment.” It would become a lesson in how to “jihadify” a secular land and incite a bloody Sunni Islamist insurgency that continues to this day in the form of ISIS.
In suppressing the subsequent Iraqi Sunni insurgency (which shocked the unprepared Bush administration that had declared “mission accomplished” three months into the war), 4,432 Americans would sacrifice their lives fighting an enemy we created. In the process of waging a bloody counter-insurgency, that also led to the maiming of 44,000 Americans and cost the country a stupendous price tag of $1.7 trillion (as it was about to go off an economic cliff in 2008’s Great Recession), the U.S. occupation led to hundreds of thousands of deaths among Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9/11 — and this acted as a jihadi recruitment drive.
This increasingly radicalized, now Islamist Sunni resistance to the “invading infidel” occupation was soon led by a jihadist “Pied Piper” named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who fulfilled the “law of unintended consequences” by swearing an oath of allegiance to bin Laden in 2004. Thus, Bush’s 2002 false claim that there were al Qaeda in Iraq — as a pretext to invade the country that had as little to do with 9/11 as Guatemala — became a reality two years later. The Iraq insurgency thankfully was quelled, to a degree, by the 2007 troop surge.
Bush took advantage of the suppression (but not defeat) of the down-but-far-from-out Sunni insurgency to quickly sign a 2008 Status of Forces Agreement with the Shiite-dominated government that allowed for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by December 2011. (Obama fulfilled this treaty’s obligations in that year.)
Because the much-touted pretext and rationale for topping the Hussein regime (i.e. a vast array of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons of mass destruction) failed to materialize in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Bush’s popularity plummeted. The 43rd president left office with a history-making 22 percent approval rating, the lowest since Gallup began polling 70 years earlier — below even the disgraced Richard Nixon.
But to this day, millions continue to believe the narrative of Iraqi WMDs, which cost twice as many American killed-in-action deaths as the war on al Qaeda in Afghanistan (2,219). This, despite Donald Trump’s historic evisceration of Bush’s rationale during the presidential debates when he broke with Republican Party convention and mocked the pretext for the “war of choice” in Iraq, calling it “the single worst decision ever made.”
Brian Glyn Williams is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He worked for the U.S. Army and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Afghanistan. He is the author of “Counter Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” (2018) and “The Last Warlord” (2013). Follow him on Twitter @BrianGlynWillms.
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