The US has been at war in the Middle East and Central Asia since October 2001, when we attacked and then invaded Afghanistan. Each time a war in one country has appeared likely to fizzle out, another has emerged (or re-emerged) to keep us at war. A “new” war — this one against ISIS or ISIL — is just now ramping up.
The episode in our serial war may be the worst ever. In Afghanistan and then in Iraq the US had at least one comprehensible over-riding strategic objective. (I do not use the term “exit strategy,” because in Iraq the objective of some was permanent occupation in which the country would serve as a base from which we could threaten or attack neighboring states and / or non-state organizations.) That these strategic objectives now appear to have been unachievable does not mean they did not exist.
As if things could not get worse, we now have in Syria and Iraq no exit strategy and no other comprehensible strategic objective. An exit strategy in our “war” on ISIL must include the establishment of competent, stable, neutral-to-friendly governments in both countries. In Syria, that is now implausible. Sooner or later the Syrian civil war will end, either with a partition, a coalition or a victor. ISIL and the Assad government are today the only credible candidates. The ultimate victor(s) could be other organization(s) but it is hard to imagine them being pro-American. And Iraq? It is hard to imagine improvement in Iraq while we are bombing the shifting territorial tendrils of ISIL and associated Sunni factions.
What about Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya and the Emirates (which are vital to us for their oil) and Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan (which are important to us because they border Israel and Palestine)? It is hard to imagine improvement so long as we are enmeshed in Syria and our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are regarded as failures. At the same time Iran and Russia, both of which we treat as casual enemies, see their influence and power growing.
I do not have a solution to our on-going mess but I do want to look at it from a different perspective.
A thought experiment: What if we had treated the 9/11 attacks as crimes rather than acts of war? And what if we had tried to avoid war entirely in the meantime?
Our reaction was to define “Terror” as the enemy and to launch the War on Terror. What if we has declared Al Qaeda to be a criminal enterprise and its members to be criminals?
We could and would have taken the strongest possible actions short of war: diplomatic, commercial and legal actions. We would have focused on Afghanistan but not simply let Saudi Arabia off the hook. (It was after all the parent of and principal supporter of Al Qaeda. Our failure to finger Saudi Arabia and our subsequent blaming of Iraq for 9/11 struck millions of Muslims as absurd.) Working through the law and the UN we would have had virtually the entire world on our side: support that likely would not have dwindled to the “Coalition of the Willing” that joined us in invading and occupying Iraq.
Without US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda would have remained marginalized in the Muslim world and would likely have faded in importance and failed to breed spin-offs outside Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and others were sworn enemies of Al Qaeda. They and their people would not have moved toward supporting it while they participated in the global effort to bring the murderers to justice.
Where would we be today? Remember that this is a thought experiment.
Saudi Arabia would likely be more cooperative, partially in atonement for the actions of its citizens. Iran would have less power, given an un-weakened Iraq and the loss of excuses to further demonize the US. In fact, Iran would likely have used 9/11 as an excuse to compete with Pakistan in an effort to subordinate the government of Afghanistan.
Iraq is a big question mark. More likely than not, Saddam Hussein or another Baathist would be in control with limited democracy at best. Bear in mind that prior to and through 9/11 the US was flying combat air patrols over Iraq’s northern and southern ends and participating in a multinational boycott. There is a good chance that both the US and Iraq would have pursued a negotiated settlement in order to focus more specifically upon Al Qaeda. In any event, with Hussein remaining in power and no US invasion, fewer Iraqis would have died and the economy and infrastructure would be in much better shape than they are now.
The US attempt to bomb and kill the leadership of the Taliban at the same time that it attacked all known Al Qaeda installations insured that many uninvolved Pashto would consider us to be a mortal enemy. Had this not happened, the population of Pakistan’s Northwest territories would have cared much less about the affairs of their brethren in Afghanistan. In this event the Pakistani government would have retained a greater measure of control in the region. There might not have emerged a Pakistani Taliban. With global arrest warrants out and crushing sanctions imposed on any country that harbored them, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda would have been much less likely to find shelter in Pakistan.
And Afghanistan? The Taliban might have concluded that Bin Laden’s money was not adequate recompense for international but non-military sanctions — particularly since the world would have reduced the flow of funds to Al Qaeda significantly. Bin Laden might have been handed over dead or alive. Had the Taliban stuck by Al Qaeda, its control over the north and west and its acceptance by the population, grudging or enthusiastic, would both have declined.There is a good chance that internal forces would have ousted the Taliban or split the country into ethnic enclaves — probably a better outcome than what we look forward to now. It is also possible that the Taliban would have become more moderate.
The US would now be more credible had it not been attacking and occupying Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries for the last 13 years. It would have better relations with many governments and peoples, including those in non-Muslim areas. The region would be more politically stable and prosperous. It would not necessarily be more democratic and secular but it would be difficult for it to be less so.
There would of course have been almost no dead American servicemen and women. There would certainly be fewer dead Iraqis and probably fewer dead Afghans. Our national debt would be two to three trillion dollars lower. Oil prices would have tended to be lower and more stable.
Girls and women in some of these countries would be treated in ways that we find deplorable but ultra-orthodoxy would probably have had less impetus. In Afghanistan particularly, where our occupation has helped to protect women’s rights and to foster girls’ education, there is likely to be an anti-American and anti-feminist backlash when we leave — which we eventually must.
It is likely that Sunni Baathists would continue to dominate the Shia majority in Iraq and that Shia Alouites would lord it over Sunnis in Syria, both in a more or less thuggish manner. However, the two governments would cooperate quietly and subtly, both considering preservation of power more important than religious principle. It is extremely unlikely than anything like ISIL would have taken hold. There would be many fewer experienced Sunni fighters and fewer weapons available. The international border would be guarded.
The War on Terror has always been nonsense. Terror is a tactic used by all armies more for its psychological effect than for its killing. American Shock and Awe in Iraq was simply an updated version of the terror bombing intrinsic to German Blitzkrieg. Some forms of terror may be prohibited by the law of war while others are permitted. We designated as “terrorist” organizations that frustrated our purposes while we ignored the sins of those that aided us. The governments of Egypt both before and after the Morsi presidency are good examples of the latter.
The war on terror is actually war on an evolving set of Muslim organizations that challenge us and / or our allies. They are not necessarily Islamist, although they have trended in that direction. They are not necessarily savage, although some are. Many are hostile or indifferent to each other rather than allied and cooperative. Our Global War on Terror has kept Al Qaeda alive and has created, defined and fostered organizations like ISIL.
The existence of the War on Terror led necessarily to the designation of Hizbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations and enabled the US to support Israel and the Post-Arafat Palestinian Authority in their refusal to recognize or abide by Hamas’s national election victory. Peace in Israel and Palestine would likely be closer and opinion throughout the Muslim world would be more sympathetic to the US if this had not occurred.
Iran would be less likely to fear the US and Israeli nuclear arsenals as existential threats but it would probably still be moving toward producing its own nukes. A US not tainted by clumsy and unsuccessful occupations of bordering states would be in a stronger position to negotiate in a meaningful way.
Regardless of what the US did or did not do, events like Colonel Qaddafi’s attack on Benghazi separatists would occur occasionally. It would be hard to sit by while a slaughter occurs. UN blue helmets have limited power and the International Criminal Court works slowly if at all. Our current involvement is similar in kind to our intervention against ISIL but offers at least some opportunity for a favorable outcome. It will probably be years before we can determine whether US (and others’) intervention has done more good or harm in Libya. There could still have been crises in foreign countries in which he US (hopefully with allies) would have made a short-term military intervention. The Rwanda genocide comes to mind.
How would the legal system have dealt with these cases once they were defined as crimes rather than acts of war? Large numbers of individuals associated with Al Qaeda would have been arrested. If there was any evidence that they were involved in any manner with the 9/11 attacks or with any other of Al Qaeda’s many crimes, they could have been subject to trial in the country where the criminal act took, in a country whose citizens or infrastructure had been harmed or in the International Criminal Court.
There would have been no use for Guantanamo, because the accused captives would not have been held indefinitely in a place where, in theory, they could invoke neither the Geneva Convention nor the law of any nation. Folks scooped up without any evidence of wrong-doing — and there would still have been some — would have been either charged or released fairly quickly. If there were evidence against a defendant that could not be made public without harming national security, prosecutors would have had to rely on other evidence. First of all, prosecutors do that frequently now. And second of all, evidence now withheld by the US government is probably that which would embarrass people, agencies or allies rather than harm national security. Defendants who acted out during trials would have been largely unsuccessful in generating sympathy in the Muslim world. An open and fair process would have spoken for itself.
We would not have done major harm to the reputation of our nation, our military and the CIA. We would not have created fundamental and, possibly, long-lasting limitations of our Constitutional rights. We would not need to argue whether torture has produced actionable intelligence because there would have been none. (Or if there were any, courts would have dealt openly with any claims by defendants.)
Our country’s stature in the world would not have declined precipitously. We would still retain some of the sympathy generated by 9/11. The Middle East and Central Asia would be more stable although far from perfect. Its citizens would be trying to work things out internally — often messily. Hopefully progress in human rights and tolerance would be occurring. A thoughtful and helpful US would have better success in helping this process along than a US represented by occupying troops, bombs and drone strikes.
This has been a thought experiment. I confess that I have been affected by wishful thinking. I submit, however, that it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which the US and the world would be worse off for not having invaded, occupied, died, killed, tortured and abridged human rights, at home and abroad.
John Neely is retired and lives in Salem. MA. His current project is the historiography of Brevet Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, famous and fabled Union Civil War combat leader. Neely holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School. He served as a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal and is entitled to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.