The destruction of the Twin-Tower in New York on September 11, 2001 caught the American intelligence services including the CIA, FBI by total surprise. The political leadership was in shock and dumbfounded, didn't know how to cope with the situation. President George W. Bush was in Florida on a routine visit. His family was in the White House. The secret service agents took the first family to a secret location. Pentagon, the headquarters of the Defence Department, was struck inflicting considerable damage. A passenger plane flying over Pennsylvania deemed to have been on a mysterious mission was shot and grounded with a few hundred passengers killed. The Twin-tower collapsed when about 3,800 people were inside the building. This deaths and destruction on the day were unprecedented. The Americans never experienced an enemy attack on such scale on the soil of the United States. People were in a state of obfuscation. New York fell into inaction for a couple of days.
The intelligence agencies realised that despite having a few thousand employees, experts and informers at home and abroad could not get a hint of a deadly attack orchestrated by an unknown enemy. The leaders of the agencies doubled down their efforts and soon 'invented' that a brigade commanded by Osama Bin Laden had carried out the deadly strike. Bin Laden had been in Afghanistan helping the Taliban in consolidating power. Taliban at that time had brought almost entire Afghanistan under its rule. It hired a "suicide squad" from abroad and assassinated the Punjsheer leader Ahmed Shah Masood, the last remnant of resistance force in September 2001.
Bush administration demanded Bin Laden to be extradited to the United States to face the charge of mass-slaughter and other crimes. Taliban declined to hand over Bin Laden whom they considered honourable guest. Bush warned the world leaders that in this time of crisis they had one option "either you are with us or against us", implying that refusal to support US efforts to haunt its enemy would automatically categorise a country or countries as American enemy. Pakistan President Musharraf, worried about the safety of nuclear facility, tried to de-escalate the mounting tension, but the Taliban leaders were defiant.
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, assumed the role of a messenger of war. He travelled all over Europe, Asia and Australia to engender a coalition to round up the enemies responsible for the death and destruction in New York. There was an outpouring of support and solidarity at the UN General Assembly when it met after a postponement of two weeks. The NATO was geared up to provide back-up support to invade Afghanistan.
The US mobilised more than 114,000 troops to invade Afghanistan. Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Italy and Australia provided additional troops to drive the Taliban out and establish a civilian rule. The air strikes began in January 2002 and following two weeks of airstrikes Taliban withdrew from the urban areas and moved to the terrains of Afghanistan. As the cities were cleared of the armed outfit, the US and allied forces moved to rural areas and 'facilitated' the set up of civil administration. Under the leadership of Hamid Karzai civilian government was installed in Kabul. Along the similar line, regional governments came into existence in Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Ghazni, Mazar-e- Shareef and Faizabad. In the process, some of the former war-lords assimilated to emerging political regrouping and ascended to power.
Hundreds of Afghans who had migrated to Europe and North America decades ago and studied abroad returned home and participated in nation building. Thousands of Afghan refugees who lived in Iran and Pakistan for years began returning home to resuscitate rural economy. The United Nations agencies provided generous assistance to facilitate their reintegration into the society. The reconstruction programme got overwhelming support from the donor community. Schools, colleges, hospitals were repaired and equipped to render services to the community. Girls found easy access to schools and the parents welcomed their kids' pursuit to learning.
Toward the end of 2002, normalcy to a large extent returned to Afghanistan. Military observers came to the conclusion that the Taliban depleted of its strength, lost public support and ceased to pose serious challenge to the Afghan government. The US and its allied forces concentrated on training and arming the Afghan army and police with the expectation that the local forces would be capable of neutralising resistance from the remnant of Taliban outfit.
The installation of the civilian government in Kabul and in the regions, the return of millions of refugees from Iran and Pakistan, the absence of Taliban inspired violence, international communities' support to the reconstruction programme and peace at the Afghan-Pakistan border prompted the US administration to conclude that Afghanistan has achieved political stability and capable of standing on its own feet. Subsequent events, however, proved that the US administration lost sight of the fact that the Taliban was a home-grown outfit having the potential to regroup as incompetence and corruption of government functionaries disillusioned the people.
In the autumn of 2002, Bush administration felt Afghanistan had been brought under control and it could invade Iraq. Earlier Bush had branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as "axis of evils". There was no valid reason for Iraq invasion. Iraq had been under UN sanction, denied of free trade and economy. UN inspectors were in relentless search for "weapons of mass destruction and bio-logical weapons". But Secretary of State Colin Powel made a dramatic presentation at the UN Security Council in November displaying a sample of biological weapons allegedly imported from Nigeria by the Iraqi government. This was challenged by Iraqi representative. Powel could not substantiate his claim of Baghdad's clandestine procurement of the banned item from Nigeria.
The Security Council was divided. France and Germany opposed invading Iraq and suggested that the UN inspectors should continue to monitor the situation. Thousands of people took to the streets in the US and voiced their opposition to Iraq invasion. Millions all over the world denounced US-UK's unjust war against Iraq.
World Food Programme, during this period, was monitoring the delivery of basic food rations to 26 million people through 90,000 Food Agents all over Iraq. It was a daunting task, but we (WFP) had a robust staff dedicated for this purpose. In the evening of March 2, 2003, we were asked to pack and leave Iraq within the next 24 hours. On the following day, I along with my colleagues boarded the aircraft at Al-Rasheed airport and left Baghdad. After three hours we landed at Larnaca, Cyprus. We found an office at the Hotel Flamingo, located at the bank of the Mediterranean Sea. We were tasked to prepare, among others, for post-war reconstruction and re-entry plan. Three days later, US led invasion began. The US troops moved into Iraq through the southern border with Kuwait. It confronted severe resistance from the Iraqi forces much to the surprise of the military high commands. The invading army, however, prevailed due to its superior fire power. Baghdad fell to the invading army within a week. Saddam Hossein went into hiding and the US installed a "Provisional Government". Over 130,000 American troops landed in Iraq to consolidate the occupation of Mesopotamia. British troops, stationed in Basra, took charge of the southern region of Iraq, mostly habited by the Shite Muslims.
It took no more than a month for the insurgency to strike the targets at the time and place of its choice. A former Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was gunned down at the gate of her house in Baghdad a few days after her induction in the provisional administration. In the third week of May, the UN office was rocked by an explosion causing the death of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General along with 22 staff members. As more troops were dispatched to quell the insurgency, the situation only worsened with increased deaths and destruction. Iraq got embroiled into a full scale civil war.
The civil war lasted for more than a decade. The US army lost over 4,500 soldiers and over 32,000 got severely wounded. About the civilian casualties, it is widely maintained that about a million people were killed and more than six million got internally displaced. The rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure would cost billions of dollars.
President Obama accelerated de-induction of troops from Iraq in order to bring the chapter to an end. But he withdrew too fast without having a contingency plan in place. The troops withdrawal left a vacuum which allowed the resurgence of the Islamic State in 2014. Pentagon dispatched reinforcement to Iraq to prevent fall of more territories to IS. The IS might have been contained but Iraq is far from being politically stable. Iraq, an independent country with rising middle class, was destroyed by American belligerence and peace was nowhere in sight.
Trump instructed the Pentagon to further draw down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. By mid-January 2021, the troops level will be reduced to 2,500 in Iraq and 2,600 in Afghanistan - lowest level since the US army stepped in 20 years ago. The Afghanistan Study Group, established by the Congress reacted to Trump's decision, saying "An abrupt withdrawal of troops would undermine the fragile but potentially transformational peace process. It would embolden the Taliban, destabilise the Kabul government and allow the terrorists group to reconsolidate. A civil war could result, provoking a wider regional conflict and an inevitable humanitarian and migration crisis." Let's not forget that the US has been keeping troops in Japan and South Korea for the past 70 years at the request of host countries. It could include Afghanistan in the list.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.