Berger on the failure of bin Laden’s strategy

On a global level, bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks set the course of U.S. foreign policy for the first two decades of the twenty-first century and reshaped the Muslim world in ways that bin Laden certainly didn’t intend and that few could have predicted in the immediate aftermath. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed days after 9/11, allowed President Bush to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

This authorization sanctioned “forever wars” that lasted for two decades after 9/11. Three presidents as different from each other as Bush, Obama, and Trump used this same authorization to carry out hundreds of drone strikes against groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and the Pakistani Taliban. Few of these strikes had any connection to the perpetrators of 9/11. The authorization was also used to justify various types of U.S. military operations in countries around the world, in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. And, of course, 9/11 provided much of the rationale for George W. Bush to invade and occupy Iraq two years later.

The was exactly the opposite of bin Laden’s aim with the 9/11 attacks, which was to push the United States out of the greater Middle East, so its client regimes in the region would fall. Instead, new American bases proliferated throughout the region, in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda—”the Base” in Arabic—lost the best base it ever had in Afghanistan. Rather than ending American influence in the Muslim world, the 9/11 attacks greatly amplified it.

Bin Laden later put a post facto gloss on the strategic failure of 9/11 by dressing it up as a great success and claiming the attacks were a fiendishly clever plot to embroil the U.S. in costly wars in the Middle East. Three years after 9/11, bin Laden released a videotape in which he asserted, “We are continuing with this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” There was no evidence that this was really bin Laden’s plan in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 was a great tactical victory for al-Qaeda—the group inflicted more direct damage on the United States in one morning than the Soviet Union had during the Cold War—but ultimately it was a strategic failure for the organization, just as Pearl Harbor was for Imperial Japan.

Bergen, Peter. The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. Simon & Schuster, 2021. p. 242-3

Related: The success of bin Laden’s strategy

2 thoughts on “Berger on the failure of bin Laden’s strategy”

  1. “That was reflected in the 9/11 attack itself, which represented a severe miscalculation: bin Laden never anticipated that the United States would go to war in response to the assault. Indeed, he predicted that in the wake of the attack, the American people would take to the streets, replicating the protests against the Vietnam War and calling on their government to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries. Instead, Americans rallied behind U.S. President George W. Bush and his “war on terror.” In October 2001, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to hunt down al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban regime, which had hosted the terrorist group since 1996, bin Laden had no plan to secure his organization’s survival.”

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