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Bin Laden’s Surprising Legacy

ARTICLES - 8 September 2021

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, could Karl Marx’s aphorism help us understand the upheavals the world has seen since?

With the Taliban back in power in Kabul, it is tempting to consider that the past twenty years have resulted in nothing but noise, fury and unnecessary suffering. Has the world, or at least Kabul, not returned to the way it was in 2001? Nothing could be further from the truth. Behind the deceptive veil of continuity, the world has changed profoundly - just not necessarily in the direction desired by its main protagonists at the start of the 21st century. Recently declassified documents written by Bin Laden, which were found in his Pakistani hideout in 2011, shed light on his intentions.

The man behind the 9/11 attacks did not only want to humiliate and hurt America and rally Muslims behind the creation of a new caliphate. He was convinced that once America's citizens were shaken to the core by a strike on their own soil, they would take to the streets and demand that their country withdraw from the Middle East, as they had for Asia during the Vietnam War. After the end of America’s presence in the region, the possibilities would be limitless: from the overthrow of the Arab regimes in place to the eventual disappearance of Israel, that outlier in the land of Islam. The fight between the "believers" and the "infidels" would end in the total defeat of the latter, thus changing the path of global history.

A romantic and bloody endeavor

In fact, the exact opposite happened, at least - and this is an essential point - in the short term. Driven by a desire for self-defense as much as revenge, America invaded Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, who had provided a sanctuary for al-Qaeda terrorists. Attacks on US soil ended up meaning more, not less, America in the Middle East. And the main beneficiaries of Bin Laden’s destabilization efforts were the region’s non-Arab powers: Turkey, Iran and, most importantly, Israel.

It is almost as if Bin Laden’s main intention had been to strengthen the Jewish state. From as early as 2011 and up to today, polls conducted in the Arab world show that only a tiny minority of Muslims (1 for every 100,000) recognize themselves in Bin Laden’s radical aims. Moreover, as Fareed Zakaria notes in The Washington Post, the vast majority of Islamist groups, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa - not to mention, of course, the Taliban in Afghanistan - are local, not global. Their destructive capabilities may not have been eliminated, but they have been severely curtailed.

Bin Laden has weakened the liberal West as well as the radical Muslim world.

Bin Laden has utterly failed to unite Muslims behind his romanticized and bloody endeavor. He succeeded - posthumously - in only one decisive respect: he exhausted America and accelerated the country’s departure from the Middle East. But the beneficiaries of this process are neither Muslims nor even Arabs: at the global level, the Chinese and the Russians have gained more than anyone else.

In short, Bin Laden has weakened the liberal West as well as the radical Muslim world. And he has done so essentially for the benefit of "Oriental despotism", to borrow the expression of Karl Wittfogel, the American philosopher of German origin. It remains to be seen - historians will tell us - whether it is not rather America that has weakened itself, by heedlessly setting objectives that were simply not attainable: to transform Afghanistan and then Iraq into democracies based on the Western model. Foreign invasions never produce democratic regimes in poor and deeply divided societies.

A new "life insurance policy"

Is the "Biden Doctrine", which was further detailed the day after the fall of Kabul, as unrealistic today as Bin Laden’s intentions were twenty years ago? Biden considers that America, once moved on from Afghanistan and the Middle East more generally, will finally be able to refocus on more important challenges, such as global warming or rivalry with China. It will do so by adapting the tactics deployed in the war on terror or the fight against its authoritarian rivals; they are to be more indirect, more proportionate and infinitely less costly in terms of money and human lives.

Unfortunately, the assumption that America - and its allies - are in a good position to face the challenges of 2021 (which are not the same as those of 2001), is only partially founded. For one, it presupposes that Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorists, which is far from guaranteed.

Furthermore, perceptions are an essential part of reality in geopolitics. Yet the perception of America in the eyes of both its adversaries and its allies has changed profoundly since September 11, 2001, and even more so since the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, European states spontaneously offered to help their injured big brother - an offer that was disdainfully declined. In the summer of 2021, Europe is no longer asking what it can do for America, but how it can - how it will - live without it.

The "return of America" cannot be conflated with a "return of the West". The latter is no more reunited in the face of the climate crisis than with regards to China.

In search of a new "life insurance policy", Europe turns inward. EU statements reveal a commendable willingness to be seen by the world, and itself, as an alternative to America. But can Europe be a credible recourse? The truth is that it has no choice. The "return of America" cannot be conflated with a "return of the West". The latter is no more reunited in the face of the climate crisis than with regards to China.

Bin Laden has weakened both the Arab-Muslim and Western worlds, strengthened Israel and fast-tracked the rise of Asia. This is but a first analysis, which will inevitably evolve over time.

 

 

Copyright: SHAH MARAI / AFP

 

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