Ten years ago the story of the Taliban as a criminal organization began its unfolding international public narrative. Ten years ago the story of Islamist rebellion and insurgency in Afghanistan dovetailed directly with the story of American politics in the 21st century. That story is run through with cheap talk, carnage, forsaken promises and missed opportunities to right old wrongs. So it’s worth thinking today, a day past the 9/11 commemorations: what if things had gone differently ten years ago? What if there had been no devastating act of terrorism ten years ago on September 11th 2001? What might have been the case in Afghanistan then?
A bit of recent history: Ten years ago, box cutters in hand, nineteen men from countries in the Middle East friendly to the United States–not one of them from Afghanistan– brought about the terrible events in downtown New York City and Washington D.C that soon after set America and Americans on the path to a decade long war. Even though al Qaeda sponsored terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration alleged that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, then no less than the chief executive of the government of Afghanistan, was a co-conspirator of the attacks and thus could not be blameless. Therefore when the Taliban promised to expel bin Laden, then-President George W. Bush argued the Taliban’s promise was non-credible and readily invaded Afghanistan.
That invasion turned into a war not of attrition but rather of retribution in places- valleys, mountains and cities- that have never held much strategic interest for the United States. In ten years tit for tat attacks that though tactically successful have not yielded long-term strategic gains and instead have been all together too costly. More than 2500 American and NATO coalitions soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Some estimates suggest that more than 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in Afghanistan as a direct result of the invasion and NATO operations there. Other estimates present figures double that number. Hard fought territory has shifted from the Taliban’s possession to the invading U.S and NATO forces and back again. And there have very few developments that justify for many Americans and international observers the invasion and what has turned out to be America’s longest war. However, earlier this year twenty three highly trained U.S Navy Seals set right the call of retributive justice: in May Osama bin Laden was found in a military cantonment town in Pakistan and was killed on sight. The story of the 9/11 attacks had come full circle it seemed: events played out that did not touch Afghan soil, nor were they brought about by Afghan souls yet ran through the whole of Afghanistan.
The events of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and even the death of bin Laden have all been unalloyed world shakers and it is hard to imagine that things could have taken a different turn. But suppose the attackers had been foiled at some earlier time. Or if, like the young Nigerian man Umar Abdulmuttalab, they had failed in their attempt to bring about the destruction that indeed took place, perhaps things might have been different.
Suppose that the attacks on 9/11/2001 had not occurred. The U.S. would not have invaded Afghanistan then. Thus, barring being overrun out of Kabul by the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, the Taliban would have remained in power. And internal democratic and strategic politics would have determined their fate.
Consider then that if the U.S had never invaded Afghanistan and had not interfered in internal Afghan politics the Taliban might have fallen of their own accord, victims of their own politics and policies. For though widely feared after their mid-90’s takeover, the Taliban were never a part of the life of the average Afghan man, woman, child in far-flung villages and towns in Northern and Western Afghanistan. Theirs was rule by Leviathan social order: a strict version of Shari’a applied in civil and criminal matters. But very few people ever came before the auspices of the Taliban’s varied and antiquated version of Islamic justice. It is not hard to imagine that their brutal rule would have spurred on an insurgency from a grass-roots alliance made up of all their near innumerable enemies.
And there’s the Taliban’s entirely negative balance sheet on Afghanistan’s economy. Steering a traditional agrarian economy, and later through failed attempts at central planning, the Taliban let Afghanistan’s infrastructure and wider assets go to hay. Productivity never staggered higher than that under the perpetual civil war the country had slogged through for at least two decades. Supposing then that the Taliban managed to stay in power in the absence of the 9/11 attacks, their tenure in power would not have been assured.
As the Taliban’s brutal and ad hoc run in power failed to generate social order based on investments in infrastructure that sustained stability and economic growth in distant corners of Afghanistan, it’s not unlikely that another round of insurgent civil conflict might have burst into full-on civil war in Northern and Western Afghanistan. No doubt India and Iran would have parlayed their influence onto any such rebellion. No doubt in turn that Pakistan would have redoubled its intelligence and operational work on behalf of the Taliban in order to combat India’s growing influence in the North and the West.
But through it all the United States would not have been involved in Afghanistan. The U.S. government could have put the surplus $1 trillion that it spent on its post 9/11 wars back into its domestic economy to grow out of the Great Recession which no doubt would have bowed markets whatever the events of some cool September day in 2001. American soldiers would have been spared grueling rotations into and out of war zones. Indeed without the attacks of September 11th the U.S. would not have embarked on the unending and boundless”War on Terror”. (I assume that without 9/11 President George Bush would not have the pretext to go to war against Saddam Hussein.)
Yet this happier story runs into the problem of narrative splicing: even if the 9/11 attacks had not happened, everything else about the region would have been the same. Everything that was in place in the region a month before the attacks would have remained the case. Barring some strategic change in the Taliban’s assessment of its then mutual advantage relationship, al Qaeda would have continued to enjoy safe haven in Afghanistan in exchange for tactical attacks against the Taliban’s enemies. Perhaps through terrorism, violent repression and by generating the fear of repression, the Taliban would have only gotten stronger as they consolidated their rule in Afghanistan.
Now perhaps the United States would have succeeded in negotiating Osama bin Laden’s arrest for his role in the attack in Yemen against the USS Cole. Though an interesting possibility, this is unlikely to have been the case. This even though there have been reports that the Taliban were ready to hand over Osama bin Laden . For the U.S. did not think such offers were credible. (There’s little doubt that those reports then and now are cheap talk: there’s no cost to reporting facts that cannot now be of any consequence whatsoever.)
The Taliban would have carried on its repressive policies against women, minorities and any and all enemies of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. And along with al Qaeda the Taliban, its nationalist objectives met, would have supported the call and function of global terrorism unchecked. Given this all-too plausible scenario, it’s not difficult to think that Afghanistan would have remained a failed state, a pariah state–little different than the vicious regime that has torn asunder the country and the people of Sudan.
There can be little doubt then that even despite having failed to put up what we now call the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the government of Afghanistan would have aided and abetted al Qaeda’s plots against the United States. It’s not implausible to think that at least one of those plots might have been successful. And perhaps that attack would have been successful on an overwhelmingly large scale, just as the terrible events of that September day were successful from the perspective of the terrorists who perpetrated those attacks.
Suppose then there were a successful attack on U.S. soil of the sort that actually did occur in September ten years ago. After a cataclysmic event, the U.S government under a Republican or a Democratic president would have marshaled every available asset to go to war against the organization that perpetrated the attack-al Qaeda-and the country which harbored it-Afghanistan.
Given any successful attack in the United States that originated from Afghanistan the U.S would have invaded. The planning and goals behind the invasion would surely have been different but whatever the slightly varied story, the U.S and its allies would have encountered facts on the ground similar to those that in the factual world seem like boundless and unending war.