One of the darkest days in United States history turned out in the long run to be a major victory for Osama bin Laden. That is not because he ruthlessly engineered the murder of almost 3,000 innocent people in the Sept.11 attack. Rather, it was because this major provocation, as bin Laden doubtlessly intended, would provoke a huge overreaction by the U.S., getting it mired in war in the region and draining it financially.
The 9/11 attack was a tactical move to get our country sucked into hostilities that have lasted for two decades, costing America about 7,000 precious military personnel, well over $4 trillion and greatly diminishing our influence and credibility in the Middle East. Bin Laden’s gambit exceeded his wildest expectations, making him the clear winner.
The 9/11 attack had been in the planning stage before George W. Bush took office, but bin Laden must have been heartened that Dick Cheney was chosen as vice president and Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Both had been involved for years with the Project for a New American Century. This neocon group's strident call for deposing Saddam Hussein offered bin Laden some interesting opportunities for achieving his objectives. Hussein was an avowed enemy of al Qaeda, and bin Laden would certainly have seen the possibility of facilitating a U.S. invasion of Iraq if it could be made to appear that Hussein was in league with al Qaeda.
The U.S. went into Afghanistan with a light footprint shortly after the 9/11 attack with the fully justified purpose of destroying bin Laden and his terrorist network. Because of its ineptitude and vicious treatment of the populace, the Taliban was soon on the ropes. It offered to negotiate in late November 2001 with only the hope of obtaining amnesty in exchange for its surrender, which would have been a highly successful outcome for the United States.
Under that proposal, the Afghans could have put together a government without Taliban interference and the U.S. could have carried out its mission to eliminate al Qaeda without having to get involved in the tedious nation-building activities that turned out to be a failure. Rumsfeld would have none of it, so the U.S. hung in there for another 19 years of grief and ultimate failure. The U.S. would go on to suffer 2,461 deaths in that war, with over 31,000 wounded. It would have warmed bin Laden’s heart, if he’d had one.
Bin Laden’s dream of eliminating Hussein also came true in fairly short order. The Bush administration fabricated evidence that Hussein colluded with al Qaeda to carry out the 9-11 attack and that he posed an imminent threat to the U.S. Al Qaeda did little to counter that narrative, hoping for a U.S. invasion.
So, we launched a completely unnecessary and counterproductive war against Iraq to accomplish the regime change that Cheney and Rumsfeld had been dreaming of. We wasted the precious lives of 4,431 American personnel and a couple trillion dollars on this fabricated war, with little to show for it. That was another win for bin Laden, but also a great boon for Iran, another of his enemies.
Iran became the second greatest beneficiary of our military adventurism. By removing Iran’s primary enemy from power, we made Iran the preeminent power in the broader Middle East. It did not necessarily have to happen.
Shortly after 9/11, Iranian President Khatami expressed his country’s “deepest condolences” for the attack. Iran and the U.S. began cooperating in operations against their “mutual enemy,” the Taliban. American diplomat Ryan Crocker and the head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, cooperated through intermediaries in operations against the Taliban. Crocker was told that Soleimani was contemplating a reevaluation of relations between the two countries
We'll never know whether some sort of rapprochement with Iran might have been possible, because the cooperation came to an abrupt halt when President Bush made it clear in his January 2002 State of the Union address, dubbed the “axis of evil” speech, that the U.S. was dedicated to regime change in Iran as well as Iraq. It was an opening that should have been pursued, despite the many other issues that divided our two nations. Iran has since gained substantial influence into the government of Iraq, as well as great sway in Syria and Lebanon.
The 9/11 scoreboard shows little gain for the United States, despite the tremendous amount of blood and treasure we have poured into the ill-fated project. Bin Laden and a good deal of his network in Afghanistan were eliminated. But remnants exist, and the organization has metastasized to other nations in the region, reaching into Africa. Iraq has been largely neutered, with the U.S. and Iran competing for influence. The U.S. is saddled with war debt that will cost trillions of dollars in interest in coming years, as well as an obligation to pay a couple of trillion dollars for future costs of medical care and other expenses for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The bottom line is that bin Laden ultimately achieved more success than he could ever have imagined. Iran came out of the turmoil in a much stronger position than at the outset. The Taliban are back in power. The United States came out as a clear loser, thanks to the incompetence and hubris of our leaders.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).