The 14th anniversary of a war we refuse to understand

Fourteen years ago this morning, 27 August 1996, I found myself reading a just-published document by Osama bin Laden entitled “Declaration of War Against the United States.” In the 12-page treatise bin Laden announced al-Qaeda’s intention to wage war on the United States and summarized its motivation in six items:

  • U.S. support for and protection of Arab police states
  • U.S. presence on the Arabian Peninsula
  • Unqualified U.S. support for Israel
  • U.S. and Western exploitation of Muslim energy resources at below market prices
  • U.S. support for other nations that oppress Muslims, especially Russia, China, and India.
  • U.S. stationing of military forces in Muslim lands

From 1996 until today, bin Laden, al-Qaeda, their allies, and those they inspire have stood by this short list of motivations. A researcher would look long, hard, and ultimately futilely for any motivations that pivot off of such cultural issues as U.S. democracy, elections, civil liberties, gender equality, etc. To be sure, bin Laden made clear that Islamists were not at all interested in any of these cultural attributes for the Muslim world. But his prose likewise made clear that he knew almost no Muslims could be motivated to risk their lives and wage jihad because there is an early presidential primary in Iowa and women are welcomed into the U.S. workplace.

No U.S. political leader or mainstream media outlet has, since 1996, given any indication that bin Laden’s declaration has been read and and understood. Instead, both have preached to Americans that they are being attacked by Islamists because of the way we live and think here in North America. Americans also have been assured that the impact of Washington’s interventionist policies in the Islamic world plays no role in our attackers’ motivation. This, of course is bald lie, but our political and media leaders have stood by it for 14 years and counting.

As that lie has left the United States floundering in an expanding war against an enemy that does not exists — that is, the Muslim freedom-and-liberty haters — it is worth thinking about what our interventionist policies and lie-based response to bin Laden’s declaration have cost us since August, 1996:

  • Two U.S. or U.S.-run military facilities in Saudi Arabia, one in Riyadh (1995) and the other in Dhahran (1996).
  • Two U.S. embassies in East Africa — Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — in 1998.
  • The U.S. Navy’s destroyer COLE in 2000.
  • The destruction of the World Trade Center and a heavily damaged Pentagon in 2001.
  • Defeat in an unnecessary war against Muslims in Iraq.
  • The coming defeat of the U.S.-NATO coalition in Afghanistan, and probably the less effective future performance of the NATO alliance.
  • The death of approximately 9,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel in the foregoing events, and the wounding of several times that number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The later category includes a higher percentage of men and women who lost one or more limbs than in any U.S. war since the Civil War.
  • More than a trillion dollars in federal expenditures on war and counter-terrorism with no end in sight.
  • The establishment of a widespread presence of radical Islamists inside the United States and a now-increasing tempo of planned and attempted domestic attacks.
  • The steady undermining of Pakistan as a stable, cohesive nation-state, a process which raises concerns about the security of that country’s nuclear arsenal.

This, it seems to me, is a high price to have paid over 14 years to fight the non-existent, liberty-hating Islamist enemy, especially because U.S. military and intelligence efforts have given us no means of accurately measuring progress in the war save for a body count and the wishful thinking of politicians and editorial writers.

Indeed, the hard metrics all seem to show progress for bin Laden and the forces he leads and inspires: Islamist victories in Iraq and Afghanistan; a weakening Pakistan; the growth of Islamist militancy in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza (all of which is enabled by the U.S.-led destruction of Saddam’s murderously anti-Islamist regime); and Islamist insurgencies in places where they were either dormant or non-existent in 2001, including Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, southern Thailand, Mindanao, North Africa, and the North Caucasus.

Perhaps the best way for Americans to see how much damage the United States has suffered and how little progress it has made against al-Qaeda and its allies is to reflect on Osama bin Laden’s concise, well-publicized, and precisely defined war aims:

  1. To help bleed the United States to bankruptcy.
  2. To spread out U.S. military and intelligence forces so they have little flexibility and few reserves.
  3. To create as much political dissent in America as possible, and to strip away as many U.S. allies as possible.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Washington or bin Laden has the clearer war aims, and which side — on an objective reading of reality — has more reason to thank God and be proud and encouraged on this, the 14th anniversary of the start of the al-Qaeda-led war on the United States.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.