For a super-expensive military alliance in search of an excuse to keep squandering taxpayer cash, “Al Qaeda” seemed the perfect enemy. Overall, even 9/11 qualifies only as a pinprick on the international economic system. New Yorkers recovered as smartly from the blow as Mumbaikars do from the more frequent attacks on that metropolis. Given bombardment of the Taliban and ample supplies of weapons and cash by the US, the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban out of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. It seemed so easy that the US and its NATO partners decided that they could finish off the job themselves. Since 2005, the alliance began to systematically remove the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance elements from the state structures created after the fall of Mullah Omar, replacing them with candidates recommended by those trusty allies, the ISI. Unsurprisingly to any except NATO, their Pakistani allies ensured both directly and through their long-term buddies the Saudi secret service that (anti-Taliban) Northern Alliance elements would get replaced with the ISI’s picks. By 2008, this process had bitten deep into the Hamid Karzai government. The new entrants — what we may term the Closet Taliban — busied themselves funnelling assistance to their friends in the overt segment of the Taliban, enabling that group to harry NATO and to deny the alliance military and political success. Paraphrasing Churchill, we may say that never in human history has so much been spent on so few by so many and with such a meagre result as NATO’s war on the Taliban.
Conspiracy theorists would argue that NATO needs an “Al Qaeda” to justify its huge budgets and the lack of rational correlation between expense and effect. Certainly in Iraq as well the US and its Sancho Panza, the UK, provided the nutrients necessary for the growth of Al Qaeda in a country that had not known religious extremism ever in its long history. The swagger of the presumed conquerors, best exemplified in Paul Bremer and his combination of suits and boots, drove thousands of otherwise moderate Iraqis to acts of violence against their occupiers. Instead of staying out of sight as they wisely do in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, US and UK forces, helped by a sprinkling of personnel from countries mainly in Europe, made themselves as conspicuous as possible. Such displays of fealty toasted the John Wayne model of warfare failed to deter extremists, but they created fear in the minds of ordinary Iraqis, many of whom were shot down simply for raising their voices while responding to the barked query of one of their “liberators”.
Smug analysts have written about the “immense success” of the just-concluded elections in Libya. This was a transparent farce, involving a minuscule number of voters, and those elected have near-zero influence within the country, which has today been partitioned between numerous militias. In the process, they have made large parts of Libya a safe haven for terror groups that are planning attacks on other states, just as soon as they settle scores with the hated Alawites and Christians of Syria. If the Taliban was regenerated in Afghanistan by NATO, it has been given life in Iraq, Libya and now Syria.
For many decades, beginning with the assault on Turkish supremacy in the initial years of the previous century, strategists in Europe and then their clones across the Atlantic have seen religious extremism in West Asia as a plus. Because of the degraded skill levels that education systems based on Wahhabi ideology generate, whole populations are prevented from emerging as challengers in the modern marketplace. Instead, they become drones, dependent on their traditional masters for technology, goods and services.
More than 83% of the income earned by West Asian states goes to economies that are members of NATO, with only China now emerging as a competitor. Religious extremism was thought to inoculate local minds against the nationalism that was sought to be spread by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Ahmed Ben Bella. However, these days, the costs of extremism are proving to be far higher than the geopolitical benefit. But unless a comprehensive reform of the education system takes place in the region, that would enable one of the most innately talented pools of humanity — the Arabs — to repeat their success a millennium ago in becoming a knowledge powerhouse, the future looks bleak. Very soon, there will be enough hydrocarbon discoveries across other regions (including India) to eliminate dependence on West Asian crude. And once the money dries up, so will the attention span of NATO. However, by its policy errors, that alliance will leave behind a human cauldron of extremism and violence that may seethe for decades.