The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

25

The Road to Tragedy

The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 triggered an extraordinary sequence of events that has defined the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Saddam had once struck the British as a ‘presentable young man’ with an ‘engaging smile’ and none of the ‘superficial affability’ of many of his colleagues; he liked to talk ‘without beating about the bush’. He was a man, the British ambassador to Baghdad concluded in the late 1960s, ‘with whom, if only one could see more of him, it would be possible to do business’.1 Seen by the French as an ‘Arab de Gaulle’, a man whose ‘nationalism and socialism’ had been warmly admired by President Jacques Chirac, Saddam was someone the United States had also been willing to bet on in the early 1980s in a bid to improve what Donald Rumsfeld called ‘US posture in the region’.2

The attack on Kuwait, Saddam Hussein told his closest advisers in December 1990, was a form of self-defence in the wake of the Irangate scandal and the revelations of double-dealing by the US.3 This was not how the rest of the world saw things. Economic sanctions were quickly applied following the invasion, as the United Nations demanded an immediate Iraqi withdrawal. When Baghdad simply ignored the mounting diplomatic pressure, plans were drawn up to resolve matters decisively. On 15 January 1991, President George H. W. Bush authorised the use of military action ‘pursuant to my responsibilities and authority under the Constitution as President and Commander-in-Chief, and under the laws and treaties of the United States’. The opening sentence of National Directive 54, which approved the use of force by ‘US air, sea and land conventional military forces, in coordination with the forces of our coalition partners’, conspicuously did not mention Iraqi aggression, violation of the sovereign territory of Kuwait or international law. Instead, in a statement that set the tone for American foreign policy over the next three decades, the President stated the following: ‘Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to US national security.’4 Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was a direct challenge to American power and interests.

An ambitious assault followed, with troops drawn from a broad coalition of countries led by General Norman Schwarzkopf – whose father had helped secure Iran for the Allies during the Second World War and had played a role not only in Operation Ajax, which deposed Mossadegh, but also in forming the Savak, the Iranian intelligence service that terrorised its own population from 1957 to 1979. Allied airstrikes targeted key defence, communication and weapons facilities, as land forces advanced into southern Iraq and Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. The expedition was spectacular, but it was also rapid. Six weeks after the start of operations in January 1991, President Bush declared a ceasefire, noting in a television address on 28 February that ‘Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met. Kuwait is once more in the hands of the Kuwaitis, in control of their destiny.’ This is ‘not a time of euphoria, certainly not a time to gloat’, he went on. ‘We must now look beyond victory and war.’5

Bush’s approval ratings soared, rising above the stratospheric levels reached by President Truman on the day of the German surrender in 1945.6 Part of the reason for this was that the aims of the war had been clearly defined and quickly achieved, with mercifully few lives lost by coalition forces. The US had excluded the goal of toppling Saddam himself, unless the latter used ‘chemical, biological or nuclear weapons’, sponsored terrorist attacks or destroyed Kuwaiti oilfields – in which case, President Bush had said, ‘it shall become the specific objective of the United States to replace the current leadership of Iraq’.7

The decision to end military action at the earliest opportunity was widely admired across the Arabic-speaking world and beyond – despite the fact that Iraqi forces did sabotage many Kuwaiti oilwells and set them ablaze. This was ignored, partly because it was felt that moving on the Iraqi capital would have been unacceptable ‘mission creep’, wrote the President in a book co-authored with his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in the late 1990s. Apart from antagonising allies in the Arab world and elsewhere, it was recognised that extending the ground war into Iraq and ‘trying to eliminate Saddam’ would have come at too high a price.8

‘We made the decision not to go to Baghdad,’ agreed Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, in a speech at the Discovery Institute in 1992, ‘because that was never part of our objective. It wasn’t what the [United States] signed up for, it wasn’t what Congress signed up for, it wasn’t what the coalition was put together to do.’ Besides, he went on, the US did not want to ‘get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq’. Removing Saddam would have been difficult, ‘and the question in my mind’, he conceded, ‘is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many.’9

Seeking to contain Saddam Hussein rather than overthrow him was the public position. Privately, it was a different story. In May 1991, just a few weeks after the ceasefire had been called, President Bush approved a plan to ‘create the conditions for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power’. In order to effect this, he set aside a substantial sum for covert operations: $100 million.10 Ever since the 1920s, the US had been actively involved in propping up regimes that suited its wider strategic interests. Washington was now showing once again that it was willing to consider regime change in order to impose its vision on this part of the world.

The muscular ambition of the US at this time was partly fired by the profound geopolitical changes witnessed in the early 1990s. The Berlin Wall had come down not long before the invasion of Kuwait, and in the months after the defeat of Iraq the Soviet Union collapsed in on itself. On Christmas Day 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union and announced the dissolution of the USSR into fifteen independent states. The world was seeing ‘changes of almost biblical proportions’, President Bush told Congress a few weeks later. ‘By the grace of God, America [has] won the Cold War.’11

In Russia itself, transition sparked a furious battle for control that ended in a constitutional crisis and the deposition of the old guard after army tanks had shelled the White House in Moscow, the seat of the Russian government, in 1993. This was also a period of major transition in China, as the reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping and others following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 began to take effect – transforming the country from an isolated, regional power into one with escalating economic, military and political ambitions.12 The oppressive politics of apartheid were also winding down at long last in South Africa. The drums of freedom, peace and prosperity seemed to be beating loudly and triumphantly.

The world had once been divided into two, President Bush told a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives. There was now ‘one sole and preeminent power: the United States of America’.13 The west had triumphed. Cutting a few moral corners in Iraq was warranted when the overriding evangelical purpose was to accelerate the spread of the hallmark and gift of the American Empire: democracy.

Over the course of the decade that followed the invasion of Kuwait, therefore, the US pursued a policy that was both ambiguous and ambitious. It repeated the mantra of liberating countries like Iraq and fostering the concept and practice of democracy; but it also jealously, and at times brutally, sought to protect and promote its interests in this rapidly changing world, almost no matter what the price. In Iraq, UN Resolution 687 applied sanctions to ‘the sale or supply . . . of commodities or products other than medicine and health supplies’, with ‘foodstuffs’ likewise excluded.14 These measures were intended to force disarmament, including the termination of biological and chemical weapons programmes, and to force agreement on recognition of the sovereignty of Kuwait. With blanket restrictions on Iraqi exports and on financial transactions, the impact was devastating – especially on the poor. Initial estimates in the Lancet suggested that 500,000 children alone died from malnutrition and disease as a direct result of these policies in five years.15 In 1996, Leslie Stahl interviewed Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, on the TV programme 60 Minutes and stated that more children had died in Iraq as a result of sanctions than in Hiroshima in 1945. ‘I think it is a very hard choice,’ Albright replied; nevertheless, she went on, ‘we think the price is worth it’.16

Sanctions were not the only steps taken against Iraq following the ceasefire. No-fly zones were imposed to the north of the 33rd parallel and to the south of the 36th parallel soon after the ceasefire was agreed – patrolled by nearly 200,000 armed overwatch sorties flown by US, French and British warplanes in the 1990s.17 These no-fly zones, which between them covered more than half of Iraqi territory, were ostensibly established to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and the Shīimageite population in the south. That they were imposed unilaterally, without a mandate from the UN Security Council, showed that the west was willing to interfere in another country’s internal affairs and take matters into its own hands when it suited it.18

This was demonstrated again in 1998, when President Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act which made it the formal ‘policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime’.19 Clinton also announced that $8 million was being made available for ‘the Iraqi democratic opposition’, with the express aim of enabling the dissonant voices opposed to Saddam to ‘unify [and to] work together more effectively’.20

The attempts by the US and its allies to get what they wanted were not limited to Iraq. President Clinton made overtures to the Iranian leadership, for example, in an attempt to open dialogue and improve relations that had spiralled downwards in the aftermath of the Irangate scandal and following the catastrophic shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet in 1988 by the USS Vincennes. Although the full extent of the reprisals taken by Teheran is still unclear, multiple evidence trails suggest an extensive series of terrorist attacks were made against US targets – possibly including the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, and also the bombing of a US base near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia in 1996.21

After Iranian involvement in the latter had been strongly suggested by a US investigation, President Clinton protested to President Khatami in a letter delivered by an intermediary in the late 1990s. The Iranians responded aggressively, dismissing American claims of Iranian complicity in the deaths of nineteen servicemen as ‘inaccurate and unacceptable’. Moreover, it was disingenuous, the response asserted, for the US to claim outrage over terrorist attacks given that it had done nothing at all to ‘prosecute or extradite the readily identifiable American citizens responsible for the downing of [the] Iranian civilian airliner’ a decade earlier. Nevertheless, Teheran did offer hope for the future. The President should rest assured, the reply stated, that Iran had ‘no hostile intentions towards Americans’. Indeed, ‘the Iranian people not only harbour no enmity but [also] have respect for the great American people’.22

This step forward was echoed in Afghanistan, where channels of communication were opened with the hardline Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Supreme Leader, Mullah Omar, made contact through an intermediary in 1996. Once again, the early signs were promising. ‘The Taliban think highly of the US,’ one senior Taliban leader said, according to a confidential report of the first meeting that was prepared by the US embassy in Kabul; moreover, support provided by Washington ‘during the jihad against the Soviets’ had not been forgotten. Above all, ‘the Taliban want good relations with the United States’.23 This conciliatory message gave grounds for optimism, as did the fact that the US had contacts and old friends locally who might prove useful in the future. One such was the warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, a long-term CIA asset since the Soviet invasion, whose (relatively) liberal attitudes towards social policy and women’s rights were noted in a memo that highlighted his growing importance within the Taliban.24

The US was primarily concerned about Afghanistan’s role as a hotbed for militants and terrorists. The Taliban had gained control of Kabul in the course of 1996, sparking growing alarm in neighbouring countries about possible regional instability, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the prospect of Russia becoming drawn into a region from which it had only just stepped back following the collapse of the USSR.

These concerns were set out at a high-level meeting with senior Taliban figures in Kandahar in October 1996. American officials were given assurances that militant training camps had been closed and that access would be provided to allow inspections to prove this was the case. Taliban officials, who included Mullah Ghous, the de facto Afghan Foreign Minister, responded encouragingly when asked about Osama bin Laden, whose activities had been of mounting concern to US intelligence. The CIA linked bin Laden to attacks on US soldiers in Somalia in 1992, to the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993 and to the creation of ‘a network of al-Qaida recruitment centres and guest houses in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’. As one intelligence report put it, he was ‘one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world’.25

‘It would be useful’, American officials told Afghan representatives, ‘if the Taliban could tell us where he is located and ensure that he cannot carry out [terrorist] attacks.’ The Afghan officials replied that bin Laden was ‘with us as a guest, as a refugee’, and as such there was an obligation to ‘treat a guest with respect and hospitality’ in keeping with Pashto culture. ‘The Taliban’, they said, ‘would not allow anyone to use [our] territory for terrorist activities.’ In any event, bin Laden had ‘promised he would not commit [terrorist attacks]’ while living in Afghanistan, and furthermore had complied when the Taliban had become suspicious of him living in caves south of Jalalabad near Tora Bora and had told him ‘to move out [and] live in an ordinary house’.26

Although this was superficially reassuring, it was not as emphatic as the Americans wanted, prompting a change of tack. ‘This man is poison,’ the US officials told the Taliban emissaries emphatically. ‘All countries, even as big and powerful as the US, need friends. [And] Afghanistan especially needs friends.’ This was a warning shot: the implication was that there would be consequences if bin Laden was involved in any further terrorist attack. The reply by Mullah Rabbani, a high-ranking figure in the Taliban leadership, was clear, repeating what had been said before. His response was quoted in full in a cable that was sent back to Washington and copied to US missions in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Riyadh and Jeddah: ‘in this part of the world there is a law that when someone seeks refuge, he should be granted asylum, but if there are people who carry out terrorist activities, then you can point these out; we have our senses and will not permit anyone to carry out these filthy activities’.27

These assurances were never fully tested. Nor were they taken at face value. By the spring of 1998, the CIA was working on a capture plan that involved gaining the support and co-operation of ‘the tribals’ in Afghanistan for what was described by planners as a ‘perfect operation’. By May, ‘planning for the [Osama bin Laden] rendition is going very well’, according to a heavily redacted CIA report; a scheme had been developed that was ‘detailed, thoughtful, realistic’, although it was not without risks. Whether the plan would get approval was another matter: as one involved put it, ‘odds the op will get the green light [are] 50–50’. Senior army officers took a less optimistic view. The commander of Delta Force was reported as being ‘uncomfortable’ with details of the scheme, while the commander of Joint Special Operations thought that the CIA plan was ‘out of [its] league’. Although there was a ‘final graded rehearsal of the operation’ – which went well – the plug was pulled.28

Before any definitive attempt to deal with bin Laden could take place, events took a decisive turn. On 7 August 1998, al-Qaida carried out simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, the largest cities in Kenya and Tanzania respectively, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more. The finger of suspicion pointed immediately at bin Laden.

Within two weeks, the US took action, launching seventy-eight cruise missiles against four suspected al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan. ‘Our target was terror,’ President Clinton said in a televised address on 20 August. ‘Our mission was clear: to strike at the network of radical groups associated with and funded by Osama bin Laden, perhaps the preeminent organiser and financier of international terrorism in the world today.’ Clinton – at that point in the midst of a sex scandal relating to the intern Monica Lewinsky that threatened to bring down his presidency and had required a separate television address three days earlier – did not consult with the Taliban prior to trying to eliminate the plot’s mastermind. In an attempt to pre-empt criticism, he said in his announcement that ‘I want the world to understand that our actions were not aimed against Islam.’ On the contrary, continued the beleaguered President, Islam is ‘a great religion’.29

It was bad enough that the attempts to deal with Osama bin Laden proved unsuccessful. But they also antagonised the Taliban, which immediately expressed outrage at the attack on Afghan territory and against a guest who had not been proven guilty of involvement in the attacks in East Africa. Mullah Omar declared that the Taliban would ‘never hand over bin Laden to anyone and would protect him with our blood at all costs’.30 As one US intelligence assessment explained, there was considerable sympathy for bin Laden and his extremism in the Arab world, where the message of ‘injustice and victimisation’ of Muslim peoples went hand in glove with the popular belief that ‘US policies prop up corrupt regimes . . . and are designed to divide, weaken and exploit the Arab world.’ Few endorse bin Laden’s terrorism, the report concluded, but ‘many share at least some of his political sentiments’.31

These were views held by Mullah Omar himself, who in a remarkable telephone call to the State Department in Washington three days after the missile strikes stated that the ‘strikes would prove counter-productive and arouse anti-American feelings in the Islamic world’. In the course of this recently declassified telephone call, the only known direct contact between the Afghan Supreme Leader and US officials, Mullah Omar remarked on the ‘current domestic difficulties’ being experienced by President Clinton – a reference to the Lewinsky affair. With this in mind, and in order to ‘rebuild US popularity in the Islamic world’ following the disastrous unilateral attack, said Mullah Omar, ‘Congress should force President Clinton to resign.’32

The US strikes were denounced meanwhile as an attack on the ‘entire Afghan people’ by a senior Taliban spokesman, Wakīl Ahmed Mutawakkil. Large anti-American demonstrations took place in Kandahar and Jalalabad following the assault, according to Ahmed, who discussed the attacks with US officials not long afterwards. ‘If [the Taliban] could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington,’ he stated, ‘it would have [done so].’33 Like Saddam Hussein when he found out that the US had been selling arms to Iran while claiming to support Iraq, it was the sense of betrayal and double-dealing that was damaging: the US gave friendly messages on the one hand and then acted brutally on the other.

Wakīl Ahmed expressed his outrage over the flimsiness of the evidence that had been presented by the Americans after the US military strikes. The Taliban leadership had always been clear that if bin Laden were found to be conducting terrorist activities from Afghan soil, action would be taken against him.34 Indeed, Mullah Omar asked the State Department for substantiation almost immediately.35 Some believed that the charges were trumped up, the Taliban official said, while others pointed out that bin Laden ‘had once been a trained guerrilla supported by the United States’. What had been presented by the Americans amounted to nothing more than ‘some papers’ which hardly constituted proof; a video cassette handed to the Taliban that was assumed to ‘contain something new’ about bin Laden was simply embarrassing – it was worthless as a piece of evidence.

The attack was disgraceful, Ahmed said, resulting in the deaths of innocent Afghans and a violation of Afghan sovereignty. If the Americans really wanted a solution to the bin Laden problem, he concluded, they should talk to the Saudis; if they did so, matters would be solved in ‘minutes not hours’.36 Ironically, the same assessment had already been reached separately by the US, as a flurry of diplomatic cables, research papers and recommendations about winning support in Riyadh show.37

The repercussions of the US strikes were disastrous. As a major US intelligence study of the al-Qaida threat written a year later put it, apart from the fact that the attempt to eliminate bin Laden had failed, the attack served to establish him across much of the Arabic-speaking world as well as elsewhere as ‘an underdog standing firm in the face of bullying aggression’. There were real dangers in the growing perception of ‘American cultural arrogance’; it was troubling too, the report warned, that the US attack ‘was morally questionable’ and mirrored aspects of bin Laden’s own bombings, where innocent casualties suffered because of a political agenda deemed to justify the use of force. As a result, ‘the retaliatory cruise missile strikes . . . may ultimately prove to have done more harm than good’. The US should also be aware, the report prophetically added, that the airstrikes were likely to ‘provoke a new round of terrorist bombing plots’.38

Even before that happened, the failed intervention brought unwelcome results. Views within the Taliban leadership about the outside world hardened as suspicions about the duplicity of the west took firm root. A siege mentality developed that served to accelerate the development of increasingly hardline religious views as well as a rising interest in exporting its brand of radical Islam on a worldwide basis – although one contemporary CIA report judged that it was highly unlikely that this could be done effectively.39

Nevertheless, US pressure served to make staunchly conservative voices become increasingly fundamentalist. Those like Mullah Rabbani, deputy leader and head of the Kabul Shūrā (Council), who feared that failing to expel bin Laden would deepen Afghanistan’s international isolation, were outmanoeuvred by Mullah Omar, whose hardline policy not to co-operate with or capitulate before outsiders prevailed. As a result, the Taliban moved closer to bin Laden’s aggressive proposals for freeing Muslims from the grasp of the west and reinstating a fantasy pre-medieval world.40

This was precisely the aim of the 9/11 attacks. An intelligence report written in 1999 had already noted how bin Laden had a ‘large and inflated ego [and saw] himself as a player on a very large and very old historical stage e.g., he sees himself resisting the latest Crusaders’.41 It was highly revealing, then, that every single audio and video tape he released after the attack on the Twin Towers mentioned the Crusades or the Crusaders as reference points. Revolutionaries often choose to evoke an idealised past, but few look back a thousand years for inspiration and justification for terrorist acts.

In the months leading up to 9/11, intelligence pointed to the rising threat of al-Qaida. A memo ‘For the President only’ with the ominous title ‘Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in US’ and dated 6 August 2001 reported the FBI’s conclusion that information gathered from ‘approximately 70 full field investigations’ ongoing throughout the United States ‘indicated patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks’.42 The US had been nervous enough in the interim to keep the door open to the regime in Kabul, offering reassurance that ‘the United States was not against the Taliban, per se [and] was not out to destroy the Taliban’. The problem was bin Laden. If he could be dealt with, US diplomats in the region advised, ‘we would have a different kind of relationship’.43

He was not dealt with. At 8.24 in the morning of 11 September 2001, it became clear that something was very wrong. Air traffic control had been trying to contact American Airlines flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles for eleven minutes since instructing the pilots to climb to 35,000 feet. When a response came, it was unexpected: ‘We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.’44 At 8.46 a.m. Eastern Time, the Boeing 767 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In the next hour and seventeen minutes, three other passenger jets that had been hijacked came down: United 175 impacted the South Tower of the World Trade Center; American 77 was flown into the Pentagon; and US 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.45

Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven people died on 9/11, along with nineteen terrorists. The psychological impact of the attacks, which saw the collapse of both of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon building damaged, was intense. Terrorist acts committed against embassy buildings or American troops abroad were shocking enough, but a co-ordinated attack against mainland targets was devastating. The haunting and terrifying footage of planes being deliberately flown into buildings, and the scenes of disaster, chaos and tragedy that occurred in the aftermath demanded an immediate and epic response. ‘The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts,’ President George W. Bush said in a televised address on the evening of the attacks. ‘I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction’, he warned, ‘between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.’46

Expressions of support flooded in from all corners of the globe – including from such unlikely quarters as Libya, Syria and Iran, whose President expressed ‘deep regret and sympathy for the victims’, adding that ‘it is an international duty to try to undermine terrorism’.47 It was immediately obvious that bin Laden was behind the attacks – although the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan claimed that the former did not have the resources necessary to execute such ‘a well-organised plan’.48 Wakīl Ahmed Muttawakil told the Qatari broadcaster al-Jazeera the day after the attacks that the Taliban ‘denounce this terrorist attack, whoever is behind it’.49

Within hours of the attacks, strategies were being drawn up to deal with bin Laden. An action plan issued on the morning of 13 September set out the importance of engaging Iran and contacting the authorities in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China – Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours. A plan was set out to ‘[r]e-energize’ them within the week that followed, with a view to preparing them for forthcoming military action against the Taliban.50 The first step of the response to 9/11 was to line up the countries of the Silk Roads.

One of Afghanistan’s neighbours was given particular attention. Pakistan had sympathies and close ties with the Taliban that went back one if not two generations. The terrorist attacks now required a straight choice for Islamabad, the head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Service was told, between ‘black and white . . . with no grey’. The country either had to ‘stand with the United States in the fight against terrorism or stand against us’.51

As the pieces were moved into position for an assault on Afghanistan, the Taliban were given a final, ominous warning – to be delivered in person either by the President of Pakistan or by his security chief. ‘It is in your interest and in the interest of your survival to hand over all al-Qaida leaders, to close the terrorists’ camps and allow the US access to terrorist facilities.’ The response would be ‘devastating’ if ‘any person or group connected in any way to Afghanistan’ was involved in terrorist attacks on the United States. ‘Every pillar of the Taliban regime’, the curt message said, ‘will be destroyed.’52 The ultimatum was emphatic and clear: surrender bin Laden, or suffer the consequences.

For all the efforts to track down bin Laden and destroy the capability of al-Qaida, there was more at stake than a manhunt. In fact, attention in Washington quickly turned to the bigger picture: controlling the centre of Asia decisively and properly. Influential voices argued that what was needed was a full reshaping of the countries of this region, one where US interests and security would be radically improved.

For decades, the US had diced with the devil. For decades, the heart of Asia had been seen as singularly important – so much so that after the Second World War it became routine to refer explicitly to this region as being directly relevant to the national security of the United States. Its location between east and west made it strategically crucial in relation to superpower rivalry, while the natural resources – oil and gas above all – made what happened in the countries of the Persian Gulf and their immediate neighbours really matter to US national security.

By 30 September 2001, three weeks after the atrocities of 9/11, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, offered the President his ‘strategic thoughts’ about what the US could and should seek to achieve in the near future as part of its ‘war aim’. ‘Some air strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban targets are planned to begin soon,’ he noted, marking the start of what he referred to as a ‘war’. It was important, he wrote, to ‘persuade or compel States to stop supporting terrorism’. What he proposed next, however, was dramatic and astonishingly ambitious. ‘If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the US will not achieve its aim.’ What this meant was then spelled out clearly. ‘The [United States government] should envision a goal along these lines: New regimes in Afghanistan and another key State (or two).’53 He did not need to specify which states he was talking about: Iran and Iraq.

The 9/11 attacks transformed the way the US engaged with the world as a whole. America’s future depended on securing the spine of Asia, running from Iraq’s western frontier with Syria and Turkey to the Hindu Kush. The vision was set out emphatically by President Bush at the end of January 2002. By then, the Taliban had been dealt with decisively, pushed out of the major cities, including Kabul, within weeks of the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, which involved extensive air attacks and a major deployment of ground forces. Although bin Laden was still at large, the President laid out in his State of the Union address why the US had to set its sights on more ambitious goals. Many regimes that had previously been hostile to American interests ‘have been pretty quiet since September 11, but we know their true nature’. North Korea, a rogue state par excellence, was one. But the real focus was on the threat posed by two others: Iran and Iraq. These, along with the regime in Pyongyang, ‘constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world’. Dismantling this axis was crucial. ‘Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun.’54

The determination to take control was overwhelming. Deposing existing regimes deemed destabilising and dangerous became paramount in the strategic thinking of the US and its allies. Priority was given to getting rid of clear and present dangers, with little thought to what would, could or should happen next. Fixing short-term problems was more important than the long-term scenario. This was explicit in the plans made against Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. ‘The [US government] should not agonise over post-Taliban arrangements,’ suggested a paper issued after the air campaign had already started. Defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban was key; what happened afterwards could be worried about later.55

The same short-termism was evident in the case of Iraq, where the sharp focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power was set against a lack of planning for how the country would look in the future. The desire to get rid of Saddam had been on the agenda since the first days of the Bush administration, with the new Secretary of State, Colin Powell, asking for clarification about ‘[US] regime change policy in Iraq’ less than seventy-two hours after George Bush’s inauguration – and months before 9/11.56 In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, attention turned almost immediately to Saddam Hussein. At a time when US troops seemed to be taking inexorable control of Afghanistan, the Department of Defense was working hard to prepare for a major move on Iraq. The question was simple, as planning notes for a meeting between Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, Chief of Central Command make clear: ‘how [to] start?’57

Three possible triggers were envisaged – all of which could justify military action. Perhaps Saddam ‘moves against the Kurds in [the] north?’, wondered Donald Rumsfeld in November 2001; maybe a ‘connection to Sept 11 attack or to anthrax attacks’ (following mailings to several media outlets and to two US senators in September 2001); or what if there was a ‘dispute over WMD inspections?’ This seemed a promising line – as revealed by the comment that follows: ‘start now thinking about inspection demands’.58

Over the course of 2002 and at the start of 2003, pressure was ramped up on Iraq, with the issue of chemical and biological weapons and that of weapons of mass destruction taking centre stage. The US pursued this with an almost evangelical zeal. In the absence of ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of a link between 9/11 and Baghdad, one report noted, only Tony Blair could be relied on to support war, albeit ‘at substantial political cost’, while another underlined the fact that ‘many, if not most, countries allied with or friendly towards the United States – especially in Europe – harbour grave doubts about . . . an all-out attack on Iraq’. Work therefore went into establishing a legal framework for full-scale war in anticipation of the likelihood that the United Nations would not give a clear mandate for action.59

Particular emphasis was given to building up the case that Iraq was not just determined to make weapons of mass destruction but was doing so covertly – and obstructing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the same time. In some cases, this created problems with the monitors themselves, who found their positions overstated, compromised or even at risk altogether. In the spring of 2002, for example, José Bustani, the Brazilian director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was ousted following a special closed session – this was the first time the head of a major international organisation had been forced from their position.60 Information gathered from one-off and often unreliable sources was given prominence, and speculation was presented as fact, the result of a single-minded determination to make the case against Iraq and Saddam appear watertight. ‘Every statement I make today’, Colin Powell told the UN on 5 February 2003, ‘is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.’61

They were nothing of the sort. Barely a week earlier, a report by the IAEA had concluded that ‘we have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the programme in the 1990s’, and it added that ‘further verification activities [would] be necessary’.62 This chimed with an update released the same day, 27 January 2003, by Hans Blix, head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), who stated that although inspectors occasionally faced incidents of harassment, ‘Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far’ with the demands of inspectors.63

As it later emerged, there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida’s attacks of 2001. Indeed, the millions of pages recovered from Baghdad following the invasion that began on 19 March 2003 have revealed conspicuously few references to terrorism at all. Rather, documents relating to the Iraqi Intelligence Service suggest that considerable care was taken to rein in those like Abu Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Front which undertook some spectacular attacks in the 1980s, and made clear that no attacks should be made on American targets under any circumstances – other than in the event of a US attack on Iraq.64

Likewise, as we now know, the supposedly extensive and elaborate nuclear weapons programme, which was so vividly real in the minds of those who saw Iraq as a threat to regional and world peace, had little basis in fact. Trailers that Colin Powell described as mobile biological weapons facilities ‘hidden in large groves of palm trees and . . . moved every one to four weeks to avoid detection’ turned out to be weather balloons – just as the Iraqis had said they were.65

The determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein at any cost went hand in hand with chronically poor planning for the aftermath. Blueprints and books produced before and as the invasion got under way set out the idyllic future that lay ahead for Iraq after liberation. The oil of Iraq, one major study claimed optimistically, was ‘a tremendous asset’. It had the potential to ‘benefit every last citizen of the country, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation’.66The naive assumption that wealth would be shared happily and fairly says much about the unrealistic expectations of what the consequences of the invasion would be. Yet the motif of spontaneous resolution was omnipresent. ‘Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country,’ the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, stated in a briefing in February 2003. It has ‘tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people. And so . . . Iraq [should easily] be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction.’ This was echoed almost precisely by Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, in a hearing with the House Appropriations Committee eight days after the invasion began in March 2003. There was no need to worry, he insisted, ‘we’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon’. Oil revenues, he breezily predicted, would bring in $50 billion to $100 billion over the next ‘two or three years’.67

The idea that removing Saddam would turn Iraq into a land of milk and honey was wishful thinking on an epic scale. When troops went into Afghanistan, policy planners noted solemnly that the United States ‘should not commit to any post-Taliban military involvement since the US will be heavily engaged in the anti-terrorism effort worldwide’.68 Expectations in Iraq were similar: 270,000 troops would be needed for an invasion of the country, according to plans drawn up by US Central Command; but three and a half years later there would be no need for more than 5,000 ground troops. This all looked plausible when presented on PowerPoint slides to those who saw what they wanted to see.69 These were light wars, in other words, ones that would be resolved quickly and enable a new balance to be established across a pivotal region of Asia.

In both cases, however, the wars proved lengthy and expensive. Iraq was all but engulfed in civil war following the fall of Baghdad and the major insurgency that followed, while in Afghanistan reaction to the intervention was as resourceful and determined as it had been against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, with Pakistan again providing crucial support for the hardline resistance fighters. Many thousands of servicemen gave their lives, while more than 150,000 US veterans are listed as suffering from wounds and injuries that rank them as being at least 70 per cent disabled.70 This comes on top of the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed or wounded in military action or – by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in cross-fire, drone strikes or car bombings – as ‘collateral damage’.71

Financial costs galloped upwards at an astonishing pace. One recent survey estimates the cost of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being as high as $6 trillion – or $75,000 for every American household once long-term medical care and disability compensation is taken into account. This represents around 20 per cent of the rise in US national debt between 2001 and 2012.72

That the effect of the interventions has been more limited than hoped only makes things worse. By 2011, President Obama had all but given up on Afghanistan, according to his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who realised how bleak the situation was in a meeting in the White House in March 2011. ‘As I sat there, I thought: The President doesn’t trust his commander [General Petraeus], can’t stand [Afghan President] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.’73 It is a description angrily echoed by President Karzai, who had been built up, supported and, in the view of many, enriched by the west. ‘As a nation’, he told the author William Dalrymple, Afghanistan has suffered enormously because of US policy; the Americans ‘did not fight against terrorism where it was, where it still is. They continued damaging Afghanistan and its people.’ There was no other way to put it, he said: ‘This is a betrayal.’74

In Iraq, meanwhile, there is little to show for the loss of life, the vast cost and the dashed hopes for the future. Ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the country could be found at the lower end of the indices that track the transition to healthy democracy. On human rights, press freedom, minority rights, corruption and freedom of speech, Iraq ranks no higher than it did under Saddam Hussein, and in some cases it is lower. The country has been crippled by uncertainty and unrest, with minority populations subjected to catastrophic upheaval and grotesque violence. Prospects for the future look bleak.

Then, of course, there is the reputational damage to the west in general and to the US in particular. ‘We should avoid as much as possible creating images of Americans killing Moslems,’ Donald Rumsfeld advised President Bush two weeks after 9/11.76 This apparent sensitivity was quickly replaced by images of inmates being held without trial in the deliberate limbo of Guantánamo Bay – a location specifically chosen on the basis that inmates could be denied the protection allowed by the US Constitution. Inquiries into the run-up to the Iraq War in the United States and the United Kingdom found that evidence had been misrepresented, manipulated and moulded to support decisions that had already been reached behind closed doors. Efforts to control the media in Iraq post-Saddam, where the concept of freedom would be trumpeted by journalists using ‘approved US Government information’ to underline ‘hopes for a prosperous democratic future’, evoked memories of Soviet-style commissars sanctioning stories based not on reality but on a dream.76

On top of that come extra-judicial renditions, torture on an institutional scale and drone strikes against figures deemed – but not necessarily proven – to be threats. It says a great deal about the sophistication and pluralism of the west that these issues can be debated in public, and that many are horrified by the hypocrisy of the message of the primacy of democracy on the one hand and the practice of imperial power on the other. So appalled were some that they decided to leak classified information that laid bare just how policy was created: pragmatically, on the hoof and often with little thought about international law and justice. None of this showed the west in a good light – something felt keenly by the intelligence agencies themselves, which have fought to keep reports of the nature and extent of torture classified, even in the face of direct challenges from the US Senate itself.

While attention has been focused on efforts to influence and shape Iraq and Afghanistan, it is important not to overlook the attempts to bring about change in Iran. These have included sanctions, enforced dynamically by Washington, which have arguably been counter-productive. As in Iraq in the 1990s, it is clear that the effect is strongest and most pronounced on the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised – making their bad lot even worse. Restricting Iranian oil exports of course has an impact on the standard of living not only of Iranian citizens but also of people living on the other side of the world. In a global energy market, the price per unit of gas, electricity and fuel affects farmers in Minnesota, taxi drivers in Madrid, girls studying in sub-Saharan Africa and coffee growers in Vietnam. We are all directly affected by the power politics going on thousands of miles away. It is easy to forget that, in the developing world, cents can make the difference between life and death; the enforcement of embargoes can mean silent suffocation for those whose voices cannot be heard – mothers in the slums of Mumbai, basket weavers in the suburbs of Mombasa or women trying to oppose illegal mining activities in South America. And all so that Iran is forced to disavow a nuclear programme built on US technology sold to a despotic, intolerant and corrupt regime in the 1970s.

As it is, apart from the diplomatic and economic pressure put on Teheran, the US has consistently made it clear that it would consider using force against Iran to impose an end to the enrichment programme. In the final stages of the last Bush administration, Dick Cheney claimed that he had pushed hard for strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, even though reactors such as Bushihr are now heavily protected by sophisticated Russian Tor surface-to-air missile systems. ‘I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than many of my colleagues,’ he said in 2009.77 Others warned him that pre-emptive strikes would make the situation across the region worse, not better. He has returned to the idea repeatedly. Negotiations will fail unless there is a threat of military action, he said in 2013, for example. ‘I have trouble seeing how we’re going to achieve our objective short of that,’ he told ABC News.78

The theme that the west needs to threaten – and be willing to use – force to get what it wants has become a mantra in Washington. ‘Iran will have to prove that its programme is really peaceful,’ Secretary of State John Kerry said in November 2013. Iran should bear in mind, he warned, that ‘the president . . . has said specifically that he has not taken [the] threat [of military action] off the table’. It is a message that he has articulated repeatedly. ‘The military option that is available to the United States is ready,’ Kerry said in an interview with the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel in January 2014. If necessary, he added, the US would ‘do what it would have to do’.79 ‘As I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency,’ President Obama stressed, ‘I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.’80

Despite issuing threats designed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, the US appears to have been taking action behind the scenes to achieve what it wants anyway. While there were several potential sources for the Stuxnet virus that attacked the centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran and then other reactors across the country, multiple indicators suggest that the highly sophisticated and aggressive cyber strategies targeting the nuclear programme could be traced back to the United States – and directly to the White House.81 Cyber-terrorism is acceptable, it seems, as long as it is in the hands of western intelligence agencies. Like the threat to use force against Iran, protecting a global order that suits western interests is simply a new chapter in the attempt to maintain position in the ancient crossroads of civilisation. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.