How the Middle East Came to be (Part 3)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
After two planes hit the world trade center, another hit the pentagon, and a fourth plane was downed in a Pennsylvania field, killing 3000 people in the largest terror attack in history, the world was changed forever.
In 1996, the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan, renaming it to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This state actually had recognition from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and was barbaric in every way possible. Additionally, the Taliban had helped harbor Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, who at the time was wanted for bombing US embassies in 1998. When the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden to the United States, the US and NATO invaded Afghanistan on October 7th.
By early December, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had been defeated in Afghanistan. On December 7th, Kandahar, the last major city under Taliban control, fell to the US coalition. Later in december, the battle of Tora Bora occurred, where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s last major stronghold in Afghanistan was located. Osama Bin Laden was nearly killed, but managed to flee across the border into Pakistan, along with most of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This would cause immense problems down the road.
This is also where the incredibly complicated Afghanistan-Pakistan-Taliban dynamic comes into play. Pakistan’s ISI (intelligence agency) has been proven to provide safe haven for the Taliban, despite the fact that the Taliban regularly commits attacks in Pakistan. This is because Pakistan views its greatest threat as India. Pakistan sees itself as cornered between India, and a potentially pro-Indian government in Afghanistan. Thus, it sees the Taliban as an effective counter to Indian dominance in Afghanistan. Yet, Pakistan also helps the US in the war on terror, providing troops on the ground and leadership, largely so Pakistan can receive military aid from the US, which it can then use to deter Indian attack. Pakistan is the most complicated player in the war on terror, and the period from 2002-2017 in Afghanistan can largely be attributed to Pakistan.
The Taliban and Al-Qaeda still maintained pockets of support within Afghanistan after the loss of Kandahar, but were overall drastically weakened in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Mullah Omar (the Taliban leader), large amounts of Taliban fighters, and Taliban leadership fled to Quetta, a city home to around 1.1 million people in southwest Pakistan. George Bush and the rest of the American government, treating the war as essentially over, announced a plan to rebuild Afghanistan. As 2002 progressed, the world turned its collective attention, once again, towards Iraq.
In October of 2002, a CIA report claimed that Iraq had or was in the process of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents, as well as nuclear weapons. Additionally, there were supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, despite the fact that they ideologically oppose each other in every regard. Nevertheless, the thought of WMDs falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda was justifiably a terrifying thought to the US. With relations between the US and Iraq at an all time low following the 1991 gulf war, and George Bush’s plans to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world, Iraq was the logical target for the US to attack.
On March 19th of 2003, US forces invaded Iraq. The opening hours included massive air strikes from airbases across the entire Middle East, followed by waves of Tomahawk missiles. A few hours later, US ground forces rolled in from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait into Iraq. The invasion was swift and successful. The once mighty Iraqi army was defeated within 3 weeks, and on April 9th, Baghdad fell, and by May 1st, Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. On December 13th, Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a foxhole, and was captured by American troops. After a series of tribunals, Hussein was executed on December 30th, 2006. One of the most brutal dictators in history had fallen. In his place was a devastating power vacuum that would utterly destroy any semblance of an actual country.
The year of 2004 was marked by bloodshed, not democracy. The Ba’ath party launched an insurgency aimed at gaining power back - these were the “Sunni nationalists”, who wanted to see a secular Iraq that was similar to that of Saddam Hussein’s. There were also various Shiite groups fighting against them. The US and the international coalition were trying to preserve order and democracy.
With the world fixated on Iraq, the Taliban had begun to make a resurgence, particularly on cross-border towns that lay between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2005, the Taliban came back in full force, committing a spree of suicide bombings and attacks in Afghanistan. The Taliban also retook ground in southern Afghanistan, and 2005 marked the deadliest year since 2001 for US troops in Afghanistan.
2006 was a true turning point in the Middle East. Iraq was extremely bloody, with sectarian tensions at a boiling point, and the Ba’athists still attempting to retake power. The situation in Iraq became widely acknowledged as a civil war, and 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006. Al-Qaeda forces also became more widespread in Iraq, but after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq) was killed in an airstrike, the group rebranded itself as the Islamic state of Iraq. This group would eventually be known as ISIS.
Afghanistan also broke down in 2006. Attempts to stop the Taliban were unsuccessful, and the Taliban begun to rush back into Afghanistan. Afghanistan was inches from becoming a failed state, and the country was still in shambles from nearly 25 years of nonstop fighting. Public sentiment in the US also begun to seriously shift, with many people questioning both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the US had basically turned Iraq into a failed state, and hadn’t achieved much in 5 years in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden was still alive, as evidenced by a 2003 video tape, and the Taliban were still active on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
On January 11th of 2007, Bush announced a “surge” of 21,500 troops into Iraq, to stabilize the country and fight off both Sunni and Shia extremists. This, combined with the awakening movement in Iraq (where Sunnis started fighting Al-Qaeda rather than US forces and Shiites) gave hope to the beleaguered, war-torn nation. The surge, in fact, was a success. American might was able to convince Sunni and Shiite leaders to negotiate with each other, as well as handily defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. By Jan 30, 2009, civilian deaths were down 90% compared to 2008. Iraq, it seemed, had been saved. Yet, sectarian tensions were still high, and US troops in the region were the only glue holding Iraq together.
In Afghanistan, a rejuvenated Taliban begun to launch more and more attacks in 2008. This includes a suicide bombing that killed 100 people in a hotel. Barack Obama was also elected president in 2008, as the situation in Afghanistan further deteriorated. In November of 2009, amid the storm of the 2009 financial crisis, Obama announced a troop surge into Afghanistan, comprising of around 30,000 US troops. This surge, unlike that of the Iraq war, was a relative failure. The Taliban continued to have momentum, and the number of attacks committed by the Taliban barely dropped. Afghanistan turned into a failed state. With Iraq semi-stable and Afghanistan in shambles, the immensely important year of 2011 was on the horizon.