Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that stunned the United States and astounded the world with its sheer audacity. It was a crisp Tuesday morning in September 2001 when four airliners commandeered by 19 hijackers crashed into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Fifteen of the 19 were Saudi Arabian nationals owing allegiance to Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden. While a fog of terror enveloped the US, some claimed certain members of the Bin Laden family were allowed to fly out of the US for their own safety while commercial airspace remained closed for even Americans. Republican George W. Bush was then at the White House. A decade and a half later, reports suggest Democratic President Barack Obama may veto a bill that would allow survivors and next of kin of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in American courts. Earlier, both Houses of the US Congress unequivocally passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. If nothing else, this only validates the adage that there are no friends or enemies in realpolitik, only permanent interests, and US interests in Saudi Arabia are more than just transient.
Post 9/11, the US response was swift and severe. Afghanistan, already hovering on the fringes of the Middle Ages under brutal Taliban rule, was pulverised back into the Paleolithic Age. Pakistan, Taliban’s main sponsor, made a quick but superfluous U-turn, becoming a frontline US ally against the very Frankenstein it had spawned in Afghanistan, with one-eyed Mullah Omar and his cohorts. This, too, only after Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age. Saddam Hussein and Iraq fell next to the US juggernaut, even though he had nothing to do with 9/11. The alleged weapons of mass destruction, the smoking gun that launched the Second Gulf War, were an invented yarn. It’s quite another matter that he and his venal regime deserved to be ousted, but that’s another story. The Arab Spring followed. By late February 2012, monarchs and potentates were ejected from office in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, mass insurrections had exploded in Bahrain and Syria, massive protests erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan and minor demonstrations began in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara and the Palestinian territories.
Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, after the Tunisian Revolution protests. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011 after 18 days of huge rallies and a sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ended his 30-year rule. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled on August 23, 2011, after the National Transitional Council took control of Bab al-Azizia. He was lynched to death on October 20, 2011, in Sirte, his hometown, as his rivals took control of the city. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the GCC power transfer deal in which a presidential election was held, leading to his successor Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi formally replacing him as President on February 27, 2012, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. However, has anything really changed in the intervening years? Has the world become a safer place after the post-9/11 domino chain of events? The answer is “no”. In fact, it’s now a much more dangerous place with ISIS and other non-state actors gaining clout. By the middle of 2015, Europe was besieged. Millions were on the march. They were fleeing to its shores, escaping the depravity of civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, southeast Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and northeast Nigeria.
Syria and Libya have almost ceased to exist as the nation states cartography comprehends them as. Half of the 23 million Syrians have become homeless and are seeking refuge. ISIS has rendered another three million-odd Iraqis refugees. Another million and a half have been displaced in Southern Sudan. The multitudes still continue to cross the sea separating West Asia and Africa from Europe in leaky little boats, risking their lives, for their choice is between the devil back home and the deep blue sea they must navigate to reach safety. America’s endeavour to reorder the geography of West Asia, frozen by the Sykes-Picot agreement after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, has failed. It has unleashed such tectonic forces of ethnicity, discontent and hate-fuelled narratives of historic injustices that the entire region from the Hindukush to the Straits of Bosporus and beyond into Arab North Africa is roiling in turmoil.
The fact that the US invasion of Iraq was planned long before 9/11 is now no secret and is extensively documented. The Project for a New American Century — a think tank that included key members of the subsequent Bush administration — had written a letter to President Bill Clinton as early as January 26, 1998, urging regime change in Iraq. Though Mr Obama came to office trying to make a distinction between the bad war (Iraq) and the good war (Afghanistan), he wasn’t averse to holding off action against ISIS long enough to build pressure for the ouster of Iraqi PM Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. What is also missed in the bewildering array of intrigue that runs concurrent to violence are the larger implications of Russia’s intervention in Syria. Perhaps, after the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, this is the first time Russia has ventured beyond its near abroad. With Istanbul now cosying up to Moscow, the dynamics are fast changing for Turkey, despite it being the eastern anchor of the Nato alliance. It was never included in the European Union as it was a secular Muslim state moving towards Islamism, that made the EU’s core quite uneasy.
While Europe has been able to reconcile the wars between Christian states from Westphalia till the Second World War, they found it subliminally harder to surmount the clash of cultures and civilisations as underscored by the siege of the imperial city of Vienna, seat of the Hapsburg dynasty, by the Ottoman Turks in 1683 and their earlier depredations in Europe. Among all these strands of history enmeshed in modern huggermugger, India would do well to wait and watch rather than walk headlong into paradigms like the US-Afghanistan-India trilateral and the other foundational agreements this government is rushing into. All these agreements were on the backburner for good reasons. With an election in the US less than two months away, the former First Lady-turned-Senator from New York-turned secretary of state and now Democratic candidate may want to reassess the corrosive US legacy in the region over the past decade and a half to reset priorities. If it is Donald Trump in the White House, a large part of the world may want to kiss their posterior goodbye...