By Jason Burke
22 August 2011
If, just over a decade ago, you had looked north through binoculars from frontline Taliban positions 30 miles north of Kabul, you would have seen an old Soviet-built airbase, little more than a cluster of ruined buildings, rusting metal stakes, a single battered jeep and no serviceable aircraft at all on the scarred strip of concrete shimmering in the Afghan sun. The group of scruffy Taliban fighters in filthy clothes who manned the makeshift trenches on the heights above it would probably have served grapes and tea to you as they did to the rare reporters who visited them.
If you had come back just a little later, say in the spring of 2002, you would have seen a startling difference. With the Taliban apparently defeated, the airstrip had become the fulcrum of a build-up of American and other international forces in the country that would continue inexorably over the next years. The feverish activity of the bulldozers, tents, jets and helicopters gave a sense that something extraordinary was happening. But its exact nature was still very unclear. Now, after a decade of conflict, a base the size of a small town has sprung up around the airstrip.
No soldiers at the battle of Castillon in 1453 knew they were fighting in the last major engagement of the hundred years war. No one fighting at Waterloo could have known they were taking part in what turned out to be the ultimate confrontation of the Napoleonic wars. The First World War was the Great War until the Second World War came along. Perhaps inevitably, then, the ongoing, interlinked and overlapping conflicts that have raged across the globe during the 10 years since 9/11 are currently without a name. In decades or centuries to come historians will no doubt find one – or several, as is usually the case. In the interim, given the one event that, in the western public consciousness at least, saw hostilities commence, "the 9/11 wars" seems an apt working title.
Al-Qaida has failed to achieve most of its key aims: there has been no global uprising of Muslim populations, no establishment of a new caliphate. Nor have changes in America's policy in the Islamic world been those desired by men such as the late Osama bin Laden. Does this mean the West has won the 9/11 wars? It has certainly avoided defeat. The power of terrorism lies in its ability to create a sense of fear far in excess of the actual threat posed to an individual. Here, governments have largely protected their citizens, and few inhabitants of western democracies today pass their lives genuinely concerned about being harmed in a radical militant attack. In July 2010, President Obama even spoke of how the US could "absorb" another 9/11, a statement that would have been inconceivable a few years before.
Despite significant damage to civil liberties in both Europe and America, institutional checks and balances appear to have worked on both sides of the Atlantic. In the face of a worrying militarisation and a commensurate growth in its offshoot, the "security" business, other forces have been strong enough to ensure that liberal democratic societies have kept their values more or less intact. The integration of minorities, always a delicate task, is generating significant tensions but is proceeding, albeit unevenly.
Even though now facing serious problems of debt, America has nonetheless been able to pay for the grotesque strategic error of the war in Iraq, at a total cost of up to a trillion dollars depending on how it is calculated, and a 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, all while financing a huge security industry at home. In 2009, American military expenditure was $661bn (£400bn), considerably more than double the total of 10 years previously, but still not enough, as Bin Laden had hoped, to fundamentally weaken the world's only true superpower. In Europe, supposedly creaking old democracies have reacted with a nimbleness and rapidity that few imagined they still possessed to counter domestic and international threats.
In short, western societies and political systems appear likely to digest this latest wave of radical violence as they have digested its predecessors. In 1911, British police reported that leftist and anarchist groups had "grown in number and size" and were "hardier than ever, now that the terrifying weapons created by modern science are available to them". The world was "threatened by forces which would be able to one day carry out its total destruction," the police warned. In the event, of course, it was gas, machine guns and artillery followed by disease that killed millions, not terrorism.
In the second decade of the 9/11 wars other gathering threats to the global commonwealth, such as climate change, will further oblige Islamic radical militants to cede much of the limelight, at least in the absence of a new, equally spectacular cycle of violence.
But if there has been no defeat for the west then there has been no victory either. Over the past 10 years, the limits of the ability of the US and its western allies to impose their will on parts of the world have been very publicly revealed. Though it is going too far to say that the first decade of the 9/11 wars saw the moment where the long decline of first Europe and perhaps America was made clear, the conflict certainly reinforced the sense that the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting. After its military and diplomatic checks in Iraq and Afghanistan, a chastened Britain may well have to finally renounce its inflated self-image as a power that "punches above its weight". The role of Nato in the 21st century is unclear. Above all, though the power, soft and hard, cultural and economic, military and political, of the US and Europe remains immense and often hugely underestimated, it is clear that this will not always be the case.
For many decades, the conventional wisdom has been that economic development around the globe would render liberal democracy and free-market capitalism more popular. One of the lessons of the 9/11 wars is that this optimism was misplaced. A sense of national or religious chauvinism appears often to be a corollary of a society getting richer rather than its opposite, and the search for dignity and authenticity is often defined by opposition to what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as foreign. In some places, the errors of western policy-makers over recent years have provoked a reaction that will last a long time. The socially conservative, moderately Islamist and strongly nationalist narrative that is being consolidated in Muslim countries from Morocco to Malaysia will pose a growing challenge to the ability of the US and European nations to pursue their interests on the global stage for many years to come. This, alongside the increasingly strident voices of China and other emerging nations, means a long period of instability and competition is likely.
American intelligence agencies reported in their four-yearly review in late 2008 that they judged that within a few decades the US would no longer be able to "call the shots". Instead, they predicted, America is likely to face the challenges of a fragmented planet, where conflict over scarce resources is on the rise, poorly contained by "ramshackle" international institutions. The previous review, published in December 2004, when George Bush had just been re-elected and was preparing his triumphal second inauguration, had foreseen "continued dominance" for many years to come. The difference is stark. If the years from 2004 to 2008 brought victory, then America and the west cannot afford many more victories like it.
If clear winners in the 9/11 wars are difficult to find, then the losers are not hard to identify. They are the huge numbers of men, women and children who have found themselves caught in multiple crossfires: the victims of the 9/11 strikes or of the 7/7 and Madrid bombings, of sectarian killings in Baghdad, badly aimed American drone strikes in Pakistan or attacks by teenage suicide bombers on crowds in Afghanistan. They are those executed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq until his death in 2006; those who died, sprayed with bullets by US Marines, at Haditha; those shot by private contractors careering in overpowered unmarked blacked-out four-wheel-drive vehicles through Baghdad. They are worshippers at Sufi shrines in the Punjab, local reporters trying to record what was happening to their home towns, policemen who happened to be on shift at the wrong time in the wrong place, unsuspecting tourists on summer holidays. They are the refugees who ran out of money and froze to death one by one in an Afghan winter, those many hundreds executed as "spies" by the Taliban, those gunned down as they waited for trains home at Mumbai's main railway station one autumn evening, those who died in cells in Bagram or elsewhere at the hands of their jailers, the provocative film-maker stabbed on an Amsterdam street, all the victims of this chaotic matrix of confused but always lethal wars.
The cumulative total of dead and wounded in this conflict so far is substantial, even if any estimates are necessarily very approximate.
The military dead are the best documented. Though some may have shown genuine enthusiasm for war, or even evidence of sadism, many western soldiers did not enlist with the primary motive of fighting and killing others. A significant number came from poor towns in the Midwest of America or council estates in the UK and had joined up for a job, for adventure, to pay their way through college, to learn a craft. By the end of November 2010, the total of American soldiers who had died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and its successor, Operation New Dawn, was 4,409 with 31,395 wounded. More than 300 servicemen from other nations had been killed too and many more maimed, disabled or psychologically injured for life. In Afghanistan, well over 2,000 soldiers from 48 different countries had been killed in the first nine years of the conflict. These included 1,300 Americans, 340 Britons, 153 Canadians, 43 Frenchmen and 44 Germans.
Military casualties among western nations – predominantly American – in other theatres of Operation Enduring Freedom, from the Sudan to the Seychelles and from Tajikistan to Turkey, added another 100 or so. At least 1,500 private contractors died in Iraq alone.
Then there were the casualties sustained by local security forces. Around 12,000 police were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. In Afghanistan, the number of dead policemen since 2002 had exceeded 3,000 by the middle of 2010. Many might have been venal, brutal and corrupt, but almost every dead Afghan policeman left a widow and children in a land where bereavement leads often to destitution. In Pakistan, somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 policemen have died in bombing or shooting attacks. As for local military personnel in the various theatres of conflict, there were up to 8,000 Iraqi combat deaths in the 2003 war, and another 3,000 Iraqi soldiers are thought to have died over the subsequent years. In Afghanistan, Afghan National Army casualties were running at 2,820 in August 2010, while in Pakistan, around 3,000 soldiers have been killed and at least twice as many wounded in the various campaigns internally since 2001. Across the Middle East and further afield in the other theatres that had become part of the 9/11 wars, local security forces paid a heavy price too. More than 150 Lebanese soldiers were killed fighting against radical "al-Qaida-ist" militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007, for example. There were many others, in Saudi Arabia, in Algeria, in Indonesia. In all, adding these totals together, at least 40,000 or 50,000 soldiers and policemen have so far died.
Casualties among their enemies – the insurgents or the extremists – are clearly harder to establish. Successive western commanders said that they did not "do body counts", but most units kept a track of how many casualties they believed they had inflicted, and these totals were often high. At least 20,000 insurgents were probably killed in Iraq, roughly the same number in Pakistan, possibly more in Afghanistan. In all that makes at least 60,000, again many with wives and children.
Then, of course, there are those, neither insurgent nor soldier, neither terrorist nor policeman, who were caught in a war in which civilians were not just features of the "battle space" but very often targets. In 2001, there were the 9/11 attacks themselves, of course, with their near 3,000 dead. In 2002 alone, at least 1,000 people died in attacks organised or inspired by al-Qaida in Tunisia, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere.
The casualties from such strikes continued to mount through the middle years of the decade. One study estimates 3,013 dead in around 330 attacks between 2004 and 2008. By the end of the first 10 years of the 9/11 wars, the total of civilians killed in terrorist actions directly linked to the group, or to al-Qaida-affliated or inspired Islamic militants, was almost certainly in excess of 10,000, probably nearer 15,000, possibly up to 20,000. To this total must be added the cost to civilians of the central battles of the 9/11 wars. In Iraq generally, estimates vary, but a very conservative count puts violent civilian deaths (excluding police) from the eve of the invasion of 2003 to the end of 2010 at between 65,000 and 125,000. They included more than 400 assassinated Iraqi academics and almost 150 journalists killed on assignment. The true number may be many, many times greater. In Afghanistan, from 7 October 2001, the day the bombing started, to mid-October 2003, between 3,000 and 3,600 civilians were killed just by coalition air strikes. Many more have died in other "collateral damage" incidents or through the actions of insurgents. The toll has steadily risen. There were probably around 450 civilian casualties in 2005. From 2006 to 2010 between 7,000 and 9,000 civilian deaths were documented, depending on the source. In 2010 alone, more than 2,000 died. In all, between 11,000 and 14,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, and at least three or four times that number wounded or permanently disabled. In Pakistan, which saw the first deaths outside America of these multiple conflicts when police shot into demonstrations in September 2001, the number of casualties is estimated at around 9,000 dead and between 10,000 and 15,000 injured.
Add these admittedly rough figures together and you reach a total of well over 150,000 civilians killed. The approximate overall figure for civilian and military dead is probably near 250,000. If the injured are included – even at a conservative ratio of one to three – the total number of casualties reaches 750,000. This may be fewer than the losses inflicted on combatants and non-combatants during the murderous major conflicts of the 20th century but still constitutes a very large number of people. Add the bereaved and the displaced, let alone those who have been harmed through the indirect effects of the conflict, the infant mortality or malnutrition rates due to breakdown of basic services, and the scale of the violence that we have witnessed over the past 10 years is clear.
Some day the 9/11 wars will be remembered by another name. Most of the dead will not be remembered at all.
Extracted from The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, to be published by Allen Lane on 1 September at RRP £30. To order a copy for £19 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
Source: The Guardian, London