When one day 9/11 is discussed from a historical point of view, the date is likely to be viewed as the end of the American century. Images of the cataclysmic failure of the United States and of the “coalition against terrorism” that it led in Afghanistan prove in a dramatic way that its influence has come to an end. The US took its first steps towards becoming a dominant global power by entering the First World War; following the end of the Second World War, it had finally succeeded in achieving this goal. The end of the Cold War with the implosion of the Soviet Union opened a decade-long window of opportunity for a new, cooperative world order. But this chance was squandered, not least by the reaction in the US to the horrific terror attacks of September 2001.
Bernd Greiner is Professor of Modern History at the University of Hamburg and Director of the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies. This text is based on an extract from his recent book, Made in Washington. Was die USA seit 1945 in der Welt angerichtet haben (C.H. Beck, 2021), and first appeared in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.
Translated by Gráinne Toomey for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
It all began with a non-negotiable decision made by the crisis committee led by President George W. Bush. A coordinated operation between intelligence services and the police was out of the question for capturing the perpetrators and backers of 9/11—armed forces and war were the means that were chosen, even though the state of Afghanistan had not attacked the US.
Bush received the authority from parliament to act against any nation, organization, or person that, in his view, had anything to do with terrorism. This meant approval for a war of undetermined length. “From this day forward”, he stated to both chambers of Congress on 20 September 2001, “any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime. […] Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” The phantasm of a conclusive victory over evil pervaded public speeches as much as it did internal documents—as did the refusal to comprehend that deploying soldiers would be wielding a blunt weapon against terrorists, and that even the most powerful nation on earth could not shoulder a long-running war that had no fronts and spanned all borders. But if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Afghanistan had long been debilitated by war when the US began its “war on terror” there on 7 October 2001. Ten years of occupation by Soviet troops and the subsequent reign of terror by the Taliban had left the country in ruins. Month after month, thousands of people were dying from flu, measles, and diarrhoea, the rate of child mortality was higher than anywhere else in the world, and life expectancy lay at 44 years for women, 45 for men. In addition to all these horrors, the country was experiencing extreme drought. Since 70 percent of livestock had perished and the amount of usable arable land had reduced by half, well over three million Afghans has left their country and constituted the largest group of refugees in the world. Another 800,000 moved from one place to the next within the country, on the lookout for food and shelter. Power came only from the barrels of guns, with warring groups having divided the country into autonomous territories, where they imposed order as they deemed fit. On the one hand there was the Taliban, who were estimated to have 45,000 armed Afghan nationals and who were also supported by 15,000 jihadis from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and several Arab countries; on the other, a loose coalition of warlords for whom the war had become a purpose in life because it give them something that they could live on. Afghanistan had sunk to the level of the poorest African countries, and reinforcing a system of state government was no longer possible. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, one of the most respected experts on the Afghanistan region, described the country at the time as the “worst humanitarian disaster zone in the world”.
The fact that Afghanistan was no longer last place on the global poverty scale after 20 years of Western occupation was not in fact due to war coalition efforts, but rather to rampant devastation elsewhere, especially in countries such as Mali or Yemen. Regarding the effects of the war on terror waged in the Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain region, various investigation committees came early to a unanimous result: it was a historic failure that paved the way to the next catastrophe. This was the finding of one such commission set up by the Norwegian government; special investigators appointed by the US Congress in 2008 who conducted over 400 interviews with people in charge came to the same conclusion. According to an employee of the United States National Security Council, “we simply had no idea how things would turn out. We made a plan; things there changed. We solved problems without knowing what we wanted to solve in the long term”.
In the aftermath of a war that has cost at least 90,000 lives, Afghanistan’s future is today more uncertain than ever before. Nowhere else in the world are so many terrorist groups active: 40 percent of all attacks on a global level in 2021 were carried out in the Hindu Kush. The country is as far away from having a functional system of government as ever; and economic and cultural progress in the country is so fragile that it is likely to be swept away by the Taliban in a very short time. Ultimately, the West has manoeuvred itself into an almost hopeless political situation. Whether it liked it or not, Biden’s government had to concede shortly after taking office that the Taliban would dictate the conditions of peace, and could no longer be prevented from returning to power. It seemed to unintentionally validate the old Afghan saying: “You have clocks. We have time”. Since the last US troops and their allies moved out, the Taliban has practically taken over the country in one fell swoop. In the end, the retreat was all that mattered, and the US government, like the entire West, was completely blindsided by the speed at which the Taliban advanced. The final result of two decades of the war on terror was scorched earth, and millions of refugees.
“We Too Have the Right to a War of Aggression”
In light of the historic failure in Afghanistan, including the brutality of the withdrawal, one is reminded of the unshaken vitality of the United States’ nationalism. The term “us versus them”—which originated in the most well-known phrase of George W. Bush from the beginning of the war on terror, where he stated “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”—could be used to name any chapter on North American regulatory policy. Because, in truth, Washington acts as if the United States is in constant need of some kind of enemy and as if it would not know who it was, or what its place in the world was, without the existence of one. Dramatizing danger and repeatedly conjuring up a state of emergency are some of the binding agents employed by this form of foreign policy. Cooperation and reciprocity are only of interest if they allow for better implementation of US concerns. The frequently-mentioned “coalitions of the willing” that emerged after 9/11 are prime examples here. They have at times proved useful, but are expendable as soon as there is a decline in power advantages for the US.
The multinational military mission in Afghanistan, ISAF, proved no match for US dominance either. The inadequacies of this mission are well documented, often in a derisive way—the vaguely defined assignment, the lack of coordination, the jumble of bureaucratic requirements, and last but not least, the fear of negative headlines. But even if these homemade deficits had not existed, the obstacles piled up by Washington would probably have been insurmountable. From a North American point of view, the allies were accomplices, were welcome as a cleaning service, and useful as a scapegoat, but obtrusive as soon as they presented their own ideas and demands. This mode of imperial self-assertion is unreliable because, as always, Washington holds on to an understanding of security that is fixated on military force. In other words, the more fearsome and unpredictable the actions of the US, the better, and the greater the fear of others, the more Americans can live without fear. From this point of view, it was even more productive to wage war for no reason, rather than actually having valid grounds.
Ultimately, these aspects could be drawn together to form a simple maxim: we too have the right to a war of aggression. This was the specific rationale adopted at the end of 2001, as Bush and his allies started planning the next, even more devastating war—the intervention in Iraq that violated international law and was implemented without UN mandate. “[N]ew threats also require new thinking”, stated the US president in June 2002, during a speech addressed to graduates at West Point Military Academy. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. […] We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action.” Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney endorsed this on a weekly basis: “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” “Absolute proof cannot be a precondition for action.” “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It’s about our response”.
The issue was never about whether the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq really existed. Neither was the question of whether Saddam Hussein had ambitions to acquire them of interest; that he might deploy them someday was the clincher. The “one percent doctrine” that guided Washington on these matters was based on the notion that the one percent possibility that nuclear weapons were being developed carried more weight than the 99 percent probability that they were not. In September 2002, this doctrine became official when Bush signed off on it as part of his National Security Strategy. Never before had a US president publicly declared the prohibition on preemptive wars and wars of aggression, as laid down by international law, null and void.
In mid-December 2011, almost ten years before the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the last US troops left Iraq. Supported by a coalition of the willing—that had, at any rate, begun to fall apart as early as 2004 and had effectively shrunk to an Anglo-American alliance since then—the troops had occupied the country for almost nine years, provoked a civil war there, and left it in a disastrous state in the end. “I have seen this movie. It was called Vietnam”, said Anthony Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the United States Central Command for the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia. And indeed, GIs who, as before, were completely unprepared for unconventional warfare, raided residential areas, arrested men between 16 and 60 years of age at random, demolished apartments and houses, pestered the elderly, ill, and disabled, humiliated suspects in front of their families by punching and kicking them, and took the relatives of those arrested into custody. “Our jaws dropped when we saw how many civilians had been mistreated and intimidated,” reported one intelligence officer. It is impossible to talk about attacks by individuals in this context, because there were far too many cases of harassment, murders, and massacres.
Crime as a Principled Response
Washington triggered an avalanche with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims on all global continents perceived the war on terror as a declaration of war. As a result, people who were religious became politicized, patriots became fanatic nationalists, and they were united in their wish for vengeance against the US. “What I did was in my eyes no crime”, a member of a terrorist group whose attack was thwarted stated jeeringly in front of a New York court. “I know that goes against the laws of the United States, but the laws of the United States do not interest me. I see myself as a Mujahideen, as a Muslim soldier. Americans and NATO attacked Muslim land. This is a war, and I am taking part in it.” This was a trite justification, for sure, but it was one that was becoming increasingly prevalent. In January 2005, the National Intelligence Council, a CIA advisory board, described Iraq as “a magnet for international terrorist activity” that provided an ideal training ground for a new generation of terrorists—long before the emergence of the holy warriors of the “Islamic State” and the fighters they recruited from the Iraqi army.
The accusation that there was a war on Islam was authenticated by news of an archipelago of prisons and camps that stretched from Indonesia to Cuba. Some of these locations achieved grim notoriety in the international media: Bagram, Kandahar, Abu Ghraib, and, above all, Guantánamo. An uncounted number of “black sites” remain unidentified. These were clandestine prisons in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, the Ukraine, as well as in Kosovo and North Africa, which were operated by local authorities contracted by the CIA. Since 2001, the US intelligence services and elite troops have been searching for suspects in at least 90 countries, as part of a counter-terrorism operation described in a document entitled the “Worldwide Attack Matrix”. 3,000 people were imprisoned in the first year of the operation alone. Many, if not most of them, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: the spice trader from Kabul who also sold honey and who attracted attention because honey was the main source of income for Al-Qaeda; the Jordanian accepted into Pakistan as a refugee, who was assumed to know terrorists because he was an Arab; the engineer and businessman from Russia who hoped to start a new life in a Muslim country who was caught between the two fronts in Afghanistan; and the German Khaled El-Masri, who at the end of 2003 was the victim of a mix-up of names at the Macedonian border and not long thereafter was sent to a black site in Kabul, where he was greeted with the words: “You are here in a country where no one knows about you, in a country where there is no law. If you die, we will bury you and no one will know”.
Since CIA had offered a bounty of between 50 and 5,000 dollars for suspects, Afghan warlords and Pakistani security forces also took part in the global manhunt. Like dealers at a gigantic bazaar where people were sold, they would show up and sell hundreds of innocent people into imprisonment, including children, young men, as well as old men over 80 years of age, some of whom had dementia.
Conditions in the torture chambers, which were distributed across the globe, have been frequently documented, but they defy description. Inmates were locked in cages, unprotected from the weather and from vermin such as scorpions and rats. Chained to their cell walls, they slept on cement floors beside holes that were for use as toilets. Anyone who made themselves noticed, such as by demanding hygiene products, could expect total isolation in a different cell block. Prisoners were beaten, hosed down with cold water for hours in a confined space, deprived of sleep for 180 hours, or were subject to waterboarding, a form of torture that simulated drowning in order to make them think they were about to die. Other torture methods involved cultural and religious humiliation. Internees were made to appear naked in front of female interrogators, masturbate in their presence, or let themselves be walked around in a circle on leash like a dog. Photos from Abu Ghraib became an emblem for Washington’s shame: naked men stacked on top of each other in front of grinning wardens, and a prisoner wearing a black cloak and a hood on their head, with arms extended and their hands and feet tied while standing on a stool, who had been told that any movement they made could trigger an electric shock. The existence of these images was part of the procedure. Their captors calculated that the prisoners would divulge any information and even collaborate as a spy after release, if this would prevent the images being distributed to their families and friends. Then there were the endless interrogations. Some prisoners claim to have been questioned 200 times—while chained at all times, for hours on end, a time during which they were not even allowed to relieve themselves. According to a CIA employee: “It [the torture] depends on the perspective of the observer. If the prisoner dies, you’ve done something wrong”.
Vice President Dick Cheney was of the same opinion: “what shocks the conscience […] to some extent, I suppose, that’s in the eye of the beholder”. This sentence is at once sordid and immensely revealing, but it points to a fundamental issue. The excesses the war on terror entailed, and when and where they took place—all of these human rights abuses were initiated from high above, in the White House, in the Pentagon, at the CIA, and in the Department of Justice. From here, torture was mandated, covered up, and justified. It was research by journalists that uncovered this, according to congressional investigative reports and internal evaluations by various authorities.
The Politics of Lawlessness
Meeting the lawless with lawlessness, pursuing grey zone politics, and signalling to its enemies that the US would stop at nothing: the prevailing attitude at the highest government level could be characterized as such. The Vice President had helped to draft the “Detainee Treatment Act”—a set of rules for dealing with prisoners passed by Congress in 2005—which ensured that the CIA was exempted from strict conditions for interrogation. The President went even further by confirming the right to break the law: for the purposes of “national security”, “enhanced interrogation techniques” were and would be allowed. During White House sessions, participants envisioned impaling the heads of Al-Qaeda terrorists on sticks and bringing them to the White House in boxes. It has also been verified that specific cases were the subject of top-level discussions, where decisions were made on which prisoners were to be interrogated, and which methods were to be used.
The fact that the President personally approved the use of waterboarding is certain, as is the fact that he pressed CIA director George Tenet particularly hard during meetings on whether any of the harsh interrogation techniques actually brought results, once asking, during a discussion about a detainee, “who authorized putting him on pain medication?” In a department directive from mid-April 2003, Donald Rumsfeld approved 24 torture techniques, including isolation, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures in cells, as well as various methods to induce stress. The government’s legal advisors behaved as if they were foot soldiers in the war on terror, delivering one clearance certificate after the next. Ultimately, the question of whether torture actually led to any new information was immaterial. In the words of the journalist William Pfaff, “the Bush administration is not torturing prisoners because it is useful but because of symbolism”.
By degrees, everything that the international community had painstakingly worked out in the aftermath of the violence of two world wars was being intentionally undermined. The principles outlined then, which are also embedded in North American civil and military law, are unique in their explicitness: during a war, enemy combatants may be captured and detained until the end of hostilities; however, during this period of imprisonment they are protected by the Geneva Convention, which has been in place since 1949. They can refuse interrogation and are only obliged to provide their name, age, and rank. In non-military conflicts, the rules of criminal law take effect: suspects have the right to a lawyer, the examination of the grounds for detention fall under the responsibility of a judge, and an independent court decides whether the evidence presented is sufficient for initiating a court case. For dealing with prisoners, whether they are prisoners of war or civilian internees, there is an indisputable ban on torture. In all circumstances, prisoners are to be protected from impairment of their personal dignity, degrading and humiliating treatment, physical and mental harassment, and all other forms of coercion. Based on this understanding of the modern Western legal tradition, Washington launched a head-on attack on established conventions, believing it could deal with these principles with quibbles about new forms of threats and the need for a new way of thinking, while replacing it with a new maxim: power is above the law, and anyone who believes it necessary to use torture, can use torture. George W. Bush himself decreed that any decision about laws for the executive branch was his to make.
Obama and the Brief Moment of Hope
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in 2009 brought a brief moment of hope. During the election campaign, he promised “change we can believe in”, meaning that people could overcome issues from the past, if they believed that they could. Among the many other hopes his election brought, one hope carried greater weight than others: that laws would be respected again and that the damage to the legal system could be repaired. In fact, the most damning critiques of lawyers who sanctioned torture had been declared invalid and withdrawn from circulation. However, disillusionment with the new administration set in faster than anticipated. Illegally detained prisoners and torture victims continued to lose out, with Obama’s Department of Justice impeding successful lawsuits in federal courts and investigations into pertinent complaints. The justification for this—that a president is obliged to preserve state secrets—would have suited his predecessor well. But it was not only the prisoners in Guantánamo that remained without rights. In Afghanistan, too, inmates were refused an impartial detention review, because US civil courts were not responsible for petitions from a war zone. The question of whether and in what way the relevant armed forces had disregarded the law remained a political hot potato. Obama even refused criminal prosecution of members of the intelligence services and military accused of torture: “[they] carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice. […] We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past”.
Equally contestable was Obama’s new strategy for the war on terror. Since 2010, US troops in Afghanistan had been handing over most of their prisoners to local authorities, thus delegating the responsibility for the prisoners’ accommodation, treatment, and lawful procedures. It was a case of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The Pentagon then proceeded to kill suspects through the use of remote-controlled drone strikes as a preventive measure, rather than take them into custody at all. The impact of these “kill missions” ordered by Obama in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen far exceeded that of the operations conducted during George W. Bush’s term. One CIA official bragged that “we are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now”. We will forever be in the dark about the number of these “sons of bitches” who had nothing to do with terrorism, or when, where, and why they were executed in this way. Any vague reference to thousands of victims obscures the death toll with anaemic statistics. But this was precisely the point—the strikes were a trial run for a war without camps and without the encumbrances of mistreatment and torture.
Buckling under public pressure in the US, Obama went all out. With a striking change of policy, he had turned large swathes of Congress against him. In actual fact, those who turned against him were that majority of Congress members who, as legislators, had for years been acting contrary to the law—for instance, when they placed the interpretation of the Geneva Convention on the unconditional protection of prisoners in the President’s hands, and allowed the White House to shape binding provisions of international law to its liking. Or, when they overrode the Supreme Court twice to block detention reviews in civil courts for Guantánamo prisoners, thus reaffirming the indefensible claim of the Bush administration to allow anyone, anywhere, to be seized on suspicion of terrorist activity and locked up at a location anywhere in the world for an indefinite period of time—without a court order, without a right to object, without charge, and without a judgement. During his election campaign, Obama had promised to close Guantánamo, but he could not accomplish even this, because the funds needed had been blocked for expanding and upgrading high-security prisons in Illinois and Wisconsin.
To this day—from the Obama administration and the term of office held by Donald Trump to the new government led by Joe Biden—nothing about this violation of international law has changed. With Guantánamo, politicians reaped what they sowed, and popularity and unscrupulousness went hand in hand. It was simply opportune to turn up saying that a tough log needed a sharp axe, and to tame terrorists using their own means. With this in mind, North America’s war on terror can also be seen as a message to itself, that says: we are not effete, weak, or defenceless, we are and remain undaunted, dominant, and are bound only to ourselves.
It also appears that the excessive exaggeration of danger continues to demand its inflated price. Joe Biden was barely 100 days in office before he spoke, in a style characteristic of his predecessor, of a contest between democracy and autocracy, black and white, good and evil. He also—as if the days of the Cold War were not long behind us—made it clear that regardless of its goal, the United States’ new major rival China would not be allowed to become “the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow”. He could also have said that only the US can and are allowed to lead, and if anyone interferes in our affairs, we will teach them manners. But this was unnecessary, since CIA director William Burns had already stated some time before that “[o]ut-competing China will be key to our national security in the days ahead”.
However, with this focus, Washington is about to repeat the cardinal mistake made by all empires aware of their impending descent and unwilling to resign themselves to it. If there is one reliable recurring factor since ancient times, it is that those who do not want to share power, but instead fight tooth and nail to hold on to it, may be able to defer their losses—but only at the price of an even higher bill in the end. Hostility and confrontation rarely miss the mark; they are generally repaid in kind. Looking back to the past in this way has nothing to do with appeasement or an escape from reality. Rather, it serves as a rebuke of incontestable present realities. In the densely woven network of today’s world, a country can neither decouple from China, nor can it construct a parallel universe where only its own rules apply. Acknowledging facts does not mean capitulating to them; this is often the only way to change them for the benefit of all. The overheated talk on containing and excluding China and keeping it in its place shows just how far away Washington is from realizing this—and how much it is gambling with its hegemonic position through its own doing.