How the 'War on Terror' destabilised the Middle East

Attacks on 11 September 2001 in New York.
Attacks on 11 September 2001 in New York.

Two decades after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the West faces the shattered debris of its failure – not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. What went wrong in the war on terror? And what lessons can Europe learn from it? Essay by Kristin Helberg

Essay by Kristin Helberg

There it is again, that phrase: "total failure". Academics, intellectuals, journalists and politicians are unanimous in their assessment that the West has failed across the board in Afghanistan, just as it did in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. A sweeping rhetorical blow – as justified as it is misleading. For the failure of the West during the crises of the past twenty years was not based on repeatedly pursuing the same misguided strategy, but was instead the result of highly varied approaches.

The USA and Europe pursued their hegemonic interests and disregarded local conditions, it is said. Sometimes they intervened too much, sometimes too little. In some places they wanted too much too quickly, in others they acted haphazardly and hesitantly. In the end, they either lacked determination and the courage to act, or they lacked patience and strategic staying power. In short, no matter how the Americans and Europeans became involved in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, things always went wrong. The West stabilised corrupt, authoritarian rulers, abandoned local partners and lost credibility.

How is it possible that all attempts to influence the region for the better have failed so miserably? That most people there are worse off than ever before?

Widespread poverty and the misery of refugees, state failure and collapse, mafia-like structures and extremism, injustice, subjugation and the fear of state and non-state violence determine the everyday lives of millions of people between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush. Yet they should have been living in freedom and democracy long ago, under pro-Western governments and with equal opportunities for education and prosperity.

The 'War on Terror' was based on false assessments

This is not only what George W. Bush (2001-2009) planned with his logic of regime change and democracy export, but also what Barack Obama (2009-2017) promised with military withdrawal and co-operation on equal terms. This is how the people themselves demanded it from 2011 onwards, by courageously demonstrating, overthrowing – in part – their hated elites and voting democratically. And this is even how America-first President Donald Trump (2017-2021) sounded, who simply wanted to sell more American weapons and leave the rest to his buddies on the ground.

They all pursued the same goal, only with different means. And they all failed. At a fundamental level, this was down to the 'War on Terror' concept, which was based on false assessments and thus led to strategic mistakes.

Think back three decades. After the end of the Cold War, the West thought that its victorious model – freedom, democracy, market economy – would sooner or later prevail worldwide. There was no need to wage proxy wars in Asia or install generals in South America anymore. But then al-Qaida came along and seemingly confirmed U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilisations – Islam rose to become the West's new world enemy and the 'war on terror' became its foreign policy doctrine.

The statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled in Baghdad after the U.S. army invaded Iraq in 2003 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)
Some three weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began, the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad on 9 April 2003. Exactly how many casualties the Iraq war and the ensuing chaos claimed among the local population is still unknown. Most estimates vary between 150,000 and half a million dead. The country's infrastructure was largely destroyed. What is clear, however, is that the operation was built on lies. US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his speech to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003, had claimed that Saddam Hussein was in possession of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, that his regime supported international terrorism and was seeking to build nuclear weapons

Instead of preventing the spread of communism, it was now a matter of containing militant Islamism. Unfortunately, the West chose the same wrong means – military firepower, dubious allies and moralistic rhetoric – a combination that was to prove ineffective against globally networked terrorists. Firstly, the new enemy proved harder to localise and, secondly, the West's hypocrisy made for easy ideological pickings on the part of the militants. Worse still, the West betrayed its liberal values in the pursuit of security and stability – both domestically and abroad. How did it come to this?

The flawed thinking of Western politicians

Reeling from the shock of the attacks of 11 September 2001, US President Bush declared war on an unknown enemy. The entire civilised world was under siege and had to defend itself by all means, was the narrative that became entrenched in the capitals of the Western hemisphere. This rather obvious conclusion, however, contained three flaws in its short-sightedness.

Firstly, the USA was dealing neither with a hostile regime nor with a state-ordered attack, but with a privately financed network of ideologised criminals. The assassins came from allied countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon), their weapons were airline tickets, rental cars, English language skills, credit cards and box cutters.

By declaring war on al-Qaida terrorists, the U.S. upgraded them from criminals to combatants, giving them the very legitimacy they lacked as non-state actors. A self-proclaimed army of jihadists wanted to wage war against the "godless West" and this West did it the favour. The USA went into a war with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars that it could not win. And which ultimately led to more terror.

Alles begann mit dieser Gruppe amerikanischer Entscheidungsträger. Sie haben das Schlamassel in #Afghanistan und im #Irak begonnen und wurden für die katastrophalen Folgen niemals zur Rechenschaft gezogen. Das sollten wir besonders dieser Tage nicht vergessen

— Karim El-Gawhary (@Gawhary) September 1, 2021

(Translation: "It all began with this group of American decision-makers. They started the mess in #Afghanistan and #Iraq and were never held accountable for the disastrous consequences. We should not forget that, especially these days")

Secondly, Americans and Europeans latched onto the supposed antagonism between "Islam" and "the West". Jihadists, who unlike Islamists pursue an international agenda, take what they need from the Koran to derive their own political ideology. Osama Bin Laden fought against decadence, injustice and foreign domination - against the double standards of Saudi princes, the oppression of Muslims, Soviet troops in Afghanistan and American military bases in the Gulf. His campaign was political, not religious – the victims of this jihad terror are 90 percent Muslim.

That is why the ideologues of al-Qaida, Islamic State (IS) and co. are not followed by pious Muslims with profound Koranic expertise, but rather frustrated young people who have either no prospects, or are filled with a deep sense of injustice. Most of them have little understanding of Islam and are therefore easily influenced and recruited.

This is especially true of lone wolves in the West who radicalise themselves via the Internet.

Placing 1.9 billion Muslims under general suspicion because a few thousand misuse their religion for political purposes and discredit it with terrorist attacks has given extremism a further boost. For the anti-terror campaign, flanked by a tendency towards Islamophobic reporting and polemics, confirmed the terrorists' propaganda of Muslims in the West being discriminated against. Instead of making Muslim women allies in the fight against militant Islamists, we feared young men with beards and backpacks in the underground and argued about teachers wearing headscarves.

A prisoner being led away in Guantanamo (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R.Schmidt)
Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush instituted a camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo, a state-of-the-art high-security prison where the rule of law was systematically circumvented. Dubious interrogation methods were used to extract confessions. If charges were brought at all, they were tried before military courts whose configuration and rules of procedure were unworthy of a constitutional state like the USA

A far remove from the rule of law

The third misconception stemmed from feeling existentially threatened. Western governments promised their citizens security and passed laws to this end, which ultimately also played into the hands of the jihadists. Everything was subordinated to the fight against terrorism, both in domestic and foreign policy.

In order to protect free society as a whole, domestic security measures were adopted that restricted the basic rights and freedoms of the individual. Travel regulations, security standards, video surveillance, storage of telecommunication data, recording of biometric characteristics, dragnet searches and police checks were justified after 9/11 with a political and legal state of emergency, yet in many places they have now become legal practice and part of everyday life. The USA authorised its executive to kidnap terror suspects, lock them up in secret prisons without trial, have them interrogated and abused by allied intelligence services, or use waterboarding to torture them themselves.

In the face of a seemingly omnipresent terrorist threat, Americans and Europeans abandoned their own moral standards and rule-of-law principles. They hollowed out their liberal-democratic orders from within, forfeiting their own legitimacy when it came to criticising the authoritarian practices of others. The jihadists had permanently shaken the liberal model of society and thus won another victory.

This security logic also shaped relations with other states and regions from 2001 onwards. Intelligence, police and military co-operation with allies was expanded – and not only within NATO. From then on, the EU's Mediterranean partnership with neighbouring Mediterranean countries was also based on the premise of the fight against terrorism. Use of the term "terror" became inflationary and was extended to national, democratically elected Islamist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

As a result the war on terror was destined to fail – they underestimated the enemy, chose the wrong means, and missed the target.

"Each U.S. ally hunted down its own personal 'terrorists'"

These three miscalculations had disastrous effects on the people of the Middle East. Due to stricter entry regulations, they could hardly travel to the USA and Europe. To ward off "radical Islamic terrorists", Trump even imposed a general ban on entry for citizens from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Iran in 2017. Personal exchange, study, professional development and cultural understanding were thus made more difficult, and prejudices and defensive reflexes were reinforced.

The term "terror" was never precisely defined. In talks in Jerusalem, Ankara, Riyadh and Cairo, the common fight against terror was invoked, but each understood something different. Israel fought Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, Ankara the PKK. In Saudi Arabia, critical bloggers were persecuted, in Egypt opposition members and Muslim Brothers. Following the example of the Americans and Europeans, anti-terror laws were passed that legalised state repression and thus mutated into an all-purpose weapon against unwelcome opponents. Under the pretext of supporting the West in its war on terror, each U.S. ally hunted down its own personal "terrorists".

Everyone else feared the aggression of the Americans. Those who were not considered friends of the USA in 2001 quickly landed on the "axis of evil" and felt threatened by regime change. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, militarily-induced regime change became a real danger, especially for Syria and Iran; after all, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were already at their borders. The Syrians, in view of the devastating conditions in Iraq, favoured gradual reform from within rather than a violent overthrow by foreign forces, and therefore continued to put their trust in ruler Bashar al-Assad.

The latter used the U.S. threat to discredit any critic, however moderate, as a stooge of the West and a traitor. External pressure led to internal pressure. It was similar in Iran, where the religious hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was able to remain in power for eight years with his anti-American rhetoric. With Bush in the White House, there was no chance of awakening and renewal on the "axis of evil".

Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photos/John Moore)
The Abu Ghraib scandal: American soldiers brutally abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners in the Baghdad prison during the U.S. occupation of the country. "In the face of a seemingly omnipresent terrorist threat, Americans and Europeans abandoned their own moral standards and rule-of-law principles," Kristin Helberg writes in her essay. "They hollowed out their liberal-democratic orders from within, forfeiting their own legitimacy when it came to criticising the authoritarian practices of others. The jihadists had permanently shaken the liberal model of society and thus won another victory"

Repression in place of reform

Consequently, the 2000s were a lost decade for the Middle East. The war on terror prevented domestic progress among friends and foes of the West alike. They all relied on repression instead of reform, thus paving the way for the 2011 uprisings.

By then, the USA had learned one major lesson from its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq: overthrowing regimes from the outside carries the risk of being militarily bogged down for years, turning from liberator to occupier. In Afghanistan, encouraged by their quick success against al-Qaida, they got sucked into the fight against Taliban rule, and then got carried away with the idea of nation building. In Iraq, it was never about terror and always about oil. By toppling not only Saddam Hussein but his entire power apparatus – Ba'ath party officials, police, soldiers and intelligence officers – the Americans laid the foundations for a resistance that attracted jihadists from all over the world.

Iraq became the new centre of global terror, and al-Qaida in Iraq would subsequently spawn IS. In both countries, the West fuelled ethnic and sectarian conflicts that led to one-sided power relations, further injustice and brutal retaliation. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died.

Peaceful demonstrations against despots sponsored by the West

The neo-conservative megalomania of the Bush administration torpedoed any effort to fight terrorism effectively. Successor Obama promised no further interventions, preferring to fight the jihadists with drones. For those peaceful demonstrators and armed insurgents who rebelled against pseudo-secular and Western-aligned despots from 2011 onwards, this meant they were largely on their own and exposed to massive violence.

The Egyptians drove out Hosni Mubarak, elected the Muslim Brotherhood and since 2013 have had to endure the military dictatorship of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, misunderstood by the West as a "guarantor of stability". Many have lost their faith in democratic elections and the rule of law. In Yemen, the domestic power struggle between the government, the Southern Transitional Council and the Houthis developed into a multi-front war between regional powers Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran. The West is fuelling the conflict by supplying weapons to the Saudis and Emiratis, but otherwise keeping a low profile. People are starving, two million young children are malnourished, humanitarian aid is obstructed, cholera, diphtheria and measles are back.


Moreover, Yemen – like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – has become the scene of the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rivalries of these two regional hegemons influence almost all conflicts in the Middle East; Tehran has been able to significantly expand its influence via allied Shia militias. These days, in order to weaken Iran, the Gulf states are even getting involved with Israel, the former arch-enemy of the Arabs – to the chagrin of the Palestinians, who are further away than ever from having their own state or at least equal civil rights.

In Libya, NATO toppled Muammar al-Gaddafi in March 2011, but left the rest to the country's politicians, military and militia leaders. These have fought and enriched themselves at the expense of the population, profiting from the disintegration of state structures. Here, too, others have set the tone militarily; Russia and Turkey provide mercenary backing for the various parties to the conflict.

Syria: the pinnacle of immoral hypocrisy

After the Libyan experience, Moscow decided to keep its last ally in the Middle East – Bashar al-Assad – in power at all costs, and the West resolved to stay out of the fray as much as possible. A few light weapons here, a new hospital there, targeted sanctions, human rights workshops and diplomatic window dressing – that's all the Americans and Europeans were prepared to do. The Syrians have paid the price for this, as Assad and his allies Russia and Iran continue to murder unhindered. With incendiary and cluster bombs, sarin and chlorine gas, with systematic torture, starvation blockades, displacement and barrel bombs, they have brought large parts of Syria back under their control.

The West refused to protect Syrian civilians from air strikes. No protection or no-fly zones without a UN mandate, they argued. Yet for their own bombing raids, which began on areas under IS rule in 2014, the U.S. and its anti-IS coalition did not need a Security Council resolution – that, after all, was the war on terror. All they needed were allies on the ground – those Kurdish fighters who risked their lives and are now left with the remains of the caliphate, in the form of tens of thousands of prisoners, radicalised women and children, foreign IS members, not to mention attacks by the underground. The West's anti-terror logic reached the pinnacle of immoral hypocrisy in Syria.

Lessons from the failed 'War on Terror'

What follows from this multi-layered debacle? What lessons should be learnt and how could Germans and like-minded Europeans do better? The Americans can no longer be counted on in the Middle East – thanks to domestic fracking, they are now independent of the Gulf states when it comes to oil and gas, and are thus concentrating their foreign policy on the power struggle with China, and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Europe needs to take care of its neighbourhood itself, keeping a weather eye on Russia, which has cast itself as the region's law enforcer since the U.S. withdrew. Six conclusions may be drawn from 20 years of fighting terrorism.

Firstly, regime change and socio-political change must come from within. Democracy and the rule of law can neither be forced with weapons nor bought with money, especially when both are combined on the ground in an absurd "civil-military co-operation". Those who need the protection of soldiers to build schools and roads are not perceived as friends, but at best as strangers.

Secondly, a life in dignity without state injustice, freedom of expression, equality before the law and political co-determination are not Western export goods, but universal values that people in many places around the world advocate. Supporting them and standing by them in an emergency should be a European foreign policy concern. And this in the knowledge that it took one and a half centuries for women to achieve suffrage in Europe. This means modesty, sensitivity and respect in our partnerships, coupled with determination when danger threatens. When that happens, it is time to offer civil society partners unbureaucratic visas, evacuation or a safe space, rather than expressions of solidarity.

Thirdly, these comrades-in-arms would often be helped if the West did not get involved with corrupt elites, authoritarian politicians and perpetrators of violence in their home countries. Such people do not bring stability, but a lack of prospects, injustice and a desire for revenge, thus preparing the ground for extremism. Those who supply autocrats with weapons, turn warlords into politicians and co-operate with drug traffickers and mafiosi to further their own interests have chosen the wrong allies.

In Afghanistan, the shameless corruption of the government and the injustice that went with it in the form of bribed judges, arbitrary violence and illegal land grabs paved the way for the Taliban to return to power. For they are promising what matters most to many Afghans: incorruptibility and justice.

High time for a paradigm shift

Fourth, we should align our foreign policy compass with these two qualities. Instead of asking who will fight with us against terror and then turning a blind eye to human rights violations, we should examine how a potential ally treats its supporters and its critics. It is not without reason that Egyptians and Tunisians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda in their first democratic elections.

Islamist parties are seen as non-corrupt and socially committed – two qualities that are very important in a region full of power- and money-hungry rulers, and may sometimes seem more important to local people than freedom and self-determination.

Financial aid and development funds should no longer flow to corrupt state apparatuses and businessmen, but as directly as possible to local and international non-governmental organisations that have the common good, rather than personal gain in mind.

Kristin Helberg (photo: Jan Kulke)
Kristin Helberg ist Journalistin und Politikwissenschaftlerin. Sie berichtete sieben Jahre aus Damaskus, hat mehrere Bücher zu Syrien geschrieben und lebt heute als Autorin und Nahostexpertin in Berlin.

Fifth, terrorist networks and caliphate areas may be crushed using military means, but they cannot be defeated ideologically. After 20 years of the war on terror, a few thousand al-Qaida members have become tens of thousands of jihadists – organised in loose networks and sub-groups of IS, spread across Africa and Asia, with followers in the United States and Europe as well.

They do not need orders to carry out attacks, but inspiration. All they need to spread terror is a car or a kitchen knife.

As a result, there can be no such thing as absolute safety. Instead of adapting our liberal model of society – which is based on the rule of law, individual responsibility and equal opportunities – to the authoritarian surveillance thinking of the jihadists, we should make it attractive for all citizens.

Sixth, there remains the question of military intervention. This should serve exclusively to protect civilians and not to overthrow disagreeable dictators.

If a state or non-state actor commits crimes under international law – genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity – civilians must be protected from them.

Up to now, this has required a UN Security Council mandate, but the experience of Syria requires that a way be found to achieve this through the General Assembly. Those techniques used to combat organised crime should be employed against globally operating terrorists, whether Islamist or right-wing nationalist motivated, with the addition of targeted drone use and special commandos. There should be no need to invade anywhere.

For two decades, the West's anti-terrorism doctrine has failed. By subordinating all policy fields to the fight against terror, it has not only lost sight of its principles, but also of pressing problems – global warming, overpopulation and inequitable world trade. Solving them requires networked thinking and action, not unilateral declarations of war.

Twenty years after 9/11, it is therefore high time for a paradigm shift: the West is not at war. It should fight every form of extremism with all the means provided by the rule of law, consider Muslims as allies, and support and protect like-minded people worldwide.

Kristin Helberg

© 2021