By Ted Koppel
Sunday, September 12, 2010; B01
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, succeeded far beyond anything Osama bin Laden could possibly have envisioned. This is not just because they resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths, nor only because they struck at the heart of American financial and military power. Those outcomes were only the bait; it would remain for the United States to spring the trap.
The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response. And over the past nine years, the United States has blundered into the 9/11 snare with one overreaction after another. Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.
It did not have to be this way. The Bush administration's initial response was just about right. The calibrated combination of CIA operatives, special forces and air power broke the Taliban in Afghanistan and sent bin Laden and the remnants of al-Qaeda scurrying across the border into Pakistan. The American reaction was quick, powerful and effective -- a clear warning to any organization contemplating another terrorist attack against the United States. This is the point at which President George W. Bush should have declared "mission accomplished," with the caveat that unspecified U.S. agencies and branches of the military would continue the hunt for al-Qaeda's leader. The world would have understood, and most Americans would probably have been satisfied.
But the insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security. Each incident provokes the contemplation of something worse to come. The Bush administration convinced itself that the minds that conspired to turn passenger jets into ballistic missiles might discover the means to arm such "missiles" with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads. This became the existential nightmare that led, in short order, to a progression of unsubstantiated assumptions: that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; that there was a connection between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden had nothing to do with fostering these misconceptions. None of this had any real connection to 9/11. There was no group known as "al-Qaeda in Iraq" at that time. But the political climate of the moment overcame whatever flaccid opposition there was to invading Iraq, and the United States marched into a second theater of war, one that would prove far more intractable and painful and draining than its supporters had envisioned.
While President Obama has recently declared America's combat role in Iraq over, he glossed over the likelihood that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will have to remain there, possibly for several years to come, because Iraq lacks the military capability to protect itself against external (read: Iranian) aggression. The ultimate irony is that Hussein, to keep his neighbors in check, allowed them and the rest of the world to believe that he might have weapons of mass destruction. He thereby brought about his own destruction, as well as the need now for U.S. forces to fill the void that he and his menacing presence once provided.
As for the 100,000 U.S. troops in or headed for Afghanistan, many of them will be there for years to come, too -- not because of America's commitment to a functioning democracy there; even less because of what would happen to Afghan girls and women if the Taliban were to regain control. The reason is nuclear weapons. Pakistan has an arsenal of 60 to 100 nuclear warheads. Were any of those to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda's fundamentalist allies in Pakistan, there is no telling what the consequences might be.
Again, this dilemma is partly of our own making. America's war on terrorism is widely perceived throughout Pakistan as a war on Islam. A muscular Islamic fundamentalism is gaining ground there and threatening the stability of the government, upon which we depend to guarantee the security of those nuclear weapons. Since a robust U.S. military presence in Pakistan is untenable for the government in Islamabad, however, tens of thousands of U.S. troops are likely to remain parked next door in Afghanistan for some time.
Perhaps bin Laden foresaw some of these outcomes when he launched his 9/11 operation from Taliban-secured bases in Afghanistan. Since nations targeted by terrorist groups routinely abandon some of their cherished principles, he may also have foreseen something along the lines of Abu Ghraib, "black sites," extraordinary rendition and even the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But in these and many other developments, bin Laden needed our unwitting collaboration, and we have provided it -- more than $1 trillion spent on two wars, more than 5,000 of our troops killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans dead. Our military is so overstretched that defense contracting -- for everything from interrogation to security to the gathering of intelligence -- is one of our few growth industries.
We have raced to Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently to Yemen and Somalia; we have created a swollen national security apparatus; and we are so absorbed in our own fury and so oblivious to our enemy's intentions that we inflate the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national debate and watch, helpless, while a minister in Florida outrages even our friends in the Islamic world by threatening to burn copies of the Koran.
If bin Laden did not foresee all this, then he quickly came to understand it. In a 2004 video message, he boasted about leading America on the path to self-destruction. "All we have to do is send two mujaheddin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qaeda' in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses."
Through the initial spending of a few hundred thousand dollars, training and then sacrificing 19 of his foot soldiers, bin Laden has watched his relatively tiny and all but anonymous organization of a few hundred zealots turn into the most recognized international franchise since McDonald's. Could any enemy of the United States have achieved more with less?
Could bin Laden, in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos? It is past time to reflect on what our enemy sought, and still seeks, to accomplish -- and how we have accommodated him.
Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC's "Nightline" from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for BBC World News America.