A careful reading of the reasoning that was cited by the then-President George Bush when the US attacked the Taliban-led Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, thus officially launching what was said “Operation Enduring Freedom”, suggests that the incumbent President Joe Biden was being economical with the truth in his first public comments on August 16 since the Taliban regained full control in Kabul.
Biden said, among others, the following:
“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.
“We did that. We severely degraded al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.
The answer is clear: We cannot continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. pic.twitter.com/AA9Fc6ZFXi
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 17, 2021
“Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.”
However, a little research reveals that US military intervention in 2001 was not for counterterrorism alone in a superficial way. Nor was it a war for America alone. It was a global war on terror, involving other countries as well.
The Bush Era
In fact, the US bombing campaign against the Taliban forces began with British support. And the same day (October 7), Canada, Australia, Germany, and France pledged future support to the American forces.
Subsequently, it grew to become international security forces (ISAF) that fought in Afghanistan, of course under the American leadership and mostly with NATO forces (Japan also contributed).
NATO assumed full control of the expanding NATO/ISAF’s role across the country on August 8, 2003. In fact, it was NATO’s first operational commitment outside of Europe.
For these military operations in the first 100 days, the then-US President George Bush had met at least 51 different countries to help build support. As many as 136 countries offered a range of military assistance. The US received 46 multilateral declarations of support from different organizations.
As many as 89 countries have granted over-flight authority for US military aircraft. As many as 76 countries granted landing rights for US military aircraft. And as many as 23 countries agreed to host US forces involved in offensive operations.
Secondly, the war was fought not only militarily but also financially. In fact, President Bush fired the first shot in the war on terrorism with the stroke of his pen to seize terrorist financial assets and disrupt their fundraising pipelines.
The world financial community moved swiftly to starve the terrorists (be it the Taliban or Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden) of their financial support.
As many as 196 countries supported the financial war on terror; 142 countries acted to freeze terrorist assets; and in the US alone, the assets of 153 known terrorists, terrorist organizations, and terrorist financial centers got frozen.
All this resulted in the major terrorist financial networks getting closed down. The US blocked more than $33 million in assets of terrorist organizations. Other nations also blocked another $33 million.
On November 7, 2001, the US and its allies closed down operations of two major financial networks – al-Barakaat and al-Taqwa – both of which were used by al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden as sources of income and mechanisms to transfer funds.
On December 4, President Bush froze the assets of a US-based foundation – The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development — that was funneling money to the terrorist organization Hamas.
Similarly, the US government created three new organizations — the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center (FTAT), Operation Green Quest, and the Terrorist Financing Task Force. These new organizations were meant to help facilitate information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies and encourage other countries to identify, disrupt, and defeat terrorist financing networks.
Accordingly, the Financial Action Task Force — a 29-nation group promoting policies to combat money laundering — adopted strict new standards to deny the terrorist access to the global financial system.
Thus, it was not American intervention alone but a global endeavor, with both military and financial components, that saw in the first 100 days the collapse of the Taliban and the escape of Osama bin Laden to Pakistan.
And what was more important, after the fall of Kabul in November 2001, the United Nations invited major Afghan factions, most prominently the Northern Alliance and a group led by the former king (but not the Taliban), to a conference in Bonn, Germany.
On December 5, 2001, the factions signed the Bonn Agreement, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1383. The agreement, reportedly reached with substantial Iranian diplomatic help because of Iran’s support for the Northern Alliance faction, installed Hamid Karzai as interim administration head.
It may be noted that in this war against terror, the Bush Administration was equally emphatic that defeating the terrorists and their leaders was only the easier part of the task. The real challenge was the “nation-building”, particularly in “failed states” like Afghanistan that were more vulnerable to terrorism.
President Bush believed that “state-weakness” in Afghanistan should be isolated and kept distant so as to ensure peace and security and keep terrorism away. For him, preventing states from failing, and resuscitating those that do fail, were America’s equally vital strategic and moral imperatives.
Bush, therefore, invoked the Marshall Plan (American help in reconstructing Europe after World War II) in declaring that America will help Afghanistan to develop “a stable, free government, an educational system, and a viable economy.”
Promotion of human rights, freedom of speech and expression, including emancipation of the women were to be firmly incorporated in an inclusive constitution of Afghanistan which would guide the future Afghan governments.
That is how massive international assistance, including financial aid, was poured in Afghanistan towards its reconstruction and development. All this, it was recognized, was highly imperative to isolate the terrorists.
The Afghan Nation Building
“Reconstructing Afghanistan” and “a Constitution for Afghanistan” was the priority of President Bush’s scheme of things.
The aforesaid features of the American intervention in Afghanistan figured prominently in the National Security Strategy of the United States, released in September 2002.
It said clearly that “We will disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations by:
- direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power. Our immediate focus will be those terrorist organizations of global reach and any terrorist or state sponsor of terrorism, which attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or their precursors;
- defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country; and
- denying further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists by convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities. We will also wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism.
- using the full influence of the United States, and working closely with allies and friends, to make clear that all acts of terrorism are illegitimate so that terrorism will be viewed in the same light as slavery, piracy, or genocide: behavior that no respectable government can condone or support and all must oppose;
- supporting a moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation;
- diminishing the underlying conditions that spawn terrorism by enlisting the international community to focus its efforts and resources on areas most at risk; and
- using effective public diplomacy to promote the free flow of information and ideas to kindle the hopes and aspirations of freedom of those in societies ruled by the sponsors of global terrorism.
Viewed thus, if we go by President Bush, who intervened in Afghanistan, the fight against the terror in Afghanistan was “global” needing global cooperation and that preventing the terrorists from returning by nation-building was as important as was defeating them.
President Biden, who is withdrawing from Afghanistan, does not think so, it seems. He appears to believe that the fight in Afghanistan was America’s fight, that it was an isolated fight without any linkages elsewhere, that for leaving Afghanistan he does not need to seek the approval of the countries or those who had fought along with the US, and that reconstructing Afghanistan is not America’s business.