It is extremely unlikely that the six Serbian nationalists who pumped bullets into Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, were even remotely mindful that their adventurism would trigger a horrible World War that would last for 51 months and change the face of Europe, almost unrecognisably.
That an act of adventurism aimed at promoting a Greater Serbia would have such unintended consequences was also not realised by most contemporary observers.
What distinguished Mohammed Atta and the other followers of Osama bin Laden who embarked on their suicide mission on September 11, 2001, was their conviction that their “martyrdom” would change existing global calculations.
Of course, the precise nature of the change was always uncertain. It was one thing to hope that a frontal assault on the American way of life would somehow trigger a clash of civilisations and polarise the Muslim ummah against the “Great Satan”. But even Bin Laden must have known that life rarely follows pre-determined courses set by soothsayers, prophets and economists.
Ten years after 9/11, it is important to assess Bin Laden in terms of his own calculations and expectations. Did he broadly achieve what he set out to do that September morning? Alternatively, is his grand vision likely to suffer the same ignominious fate as its founder did in Abbottabad on May 2?
Like many other contemporary radicals, Al Qaeda’s Pearl Harbour was based on the assumption that a morally degenerate capitalist order was incapable of sustained self-defence, particularly when confronted by a fiercely motivated opponent. I don’t think that Bin Laden had any doubts that the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the massacre of nearly 3,000 people would invite fierce retribution — regardless of which individual was in residence at the White House. Those who charge President George W. Bush of being a warmonger appear to be unmindful that no President of the US could have avoided mounting retaliatory attacks on Bin Laden’s safe haven. A seasoned player such as Bin Laden had probably calculated on the US invasion of Afghanistan — although he may not have factored in the swiftness with which the Taliban regime crumbled.
In years to come, it is conceivable that his fan club will project him as the man who, at a great personal cost, over-extended the enemy and quite systematically exposed its vulnerabilities. Sadly, the assessment will not be entirely misplaced. The US retaliation against the Taliban was predictably hard, swift and even efficient. But waging war was the easy part. The US began faltering at the very next hurdle: the de-Talibanisation of Afghanistan.
There were three big miscalculations. First, unfamiliar with the challenges of empire-building (a phenomenon that the British too have erased from their collective consciousness), the US presumed that either a liberal democracy or at least a modern Islamic democracy could be recreated in Afghanistan by the teamwork of well-intentioned Americans and US-educated Afghan exiles.
The problem was that the institutions necessary for the creation of a functioning democracy were virtually non-existent in a country ravaged by nearly two decades of uninterrupted turmoil. The elbow room that Hamid Karzai needed to create a benevolent autocracy was never given to him by the US and its Nato allies. The result was a dysfunctional hotchpotch that was made worse by an understandable Afghan resentment towards armies of occupation.
Secondly, the military defeat of the Taliban within Afghanistan was always incomplete as long as Mullah Omar and other associated groups maintained a lifeline in neighbouring Pakistan. For reasons of expediency, Pakistan allowed the US an initial free run in Afghanistan while providing sanctuary to the fleeing Taliban. However, since Pakistani policy was dominated by its obsession with India, it soon redoubled its efforts to tire the West out in Afghanistan.
In hindsight, the decade after 9/11 will be marked by Pakistan’s remarkable success in clawing its way back into reckoning in Afghanistan. What is even more striking is that this recovery was almost entirely subsidised by the US which paid Pakistan billions of dollars of hush money. The problem was that Pakistan pocketed the money and then did precisely what it thought was in its national interests — to keep the conflict alive in Afghanistan.
From keeping Bin Laden under wraps in Abbottabad to maintaining Mullah Omar in Quetta, Pakistan ensured that militant Islamism was kept alive after its immediate post-9/11 defeat.
Finally, and this is where Bin Laden was remarkably prescient, it soon became clear that neither the US nor other European countries had the stomach to police a remote, unfamiliar and inhospitable part of the world.
The involvement in Iraq was, of course, the proverbial last straw. But even if President Bush wasn’t so intent on ousting Saddam Hussein, it is certain that domestic public opinion would have acquiesced in a long-term campaign of pacification. Recent attempts to distinguish between Islamic conservatives (the Taliban) and radical Islamists (Al Qaeda) amount to rationalising the reality of a tired West.
On 9/11, Bin Laden unleashed what he always knew would be a very long war. After a decade, and with the West beset by a larger crisis of capitalism, one phase of the war has concluded. The next phase, involving a blend of the Arab Spring, Islamist radicalism and a hatred of Israel is just about beginning. Only the reckless can hazard to guess its outcome. As of now, Bin Laden has reason to smile.