Their Precision Weaponry and Ours
By Tom Engelhardt
On the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda launched its four-plane air force against the United States. On board were its precision weapons: 19 suicidal hijackers. One of those planes, thanks to the resistance of its passengers, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The other three hit their targets -- the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. -- with the kind of "precision" we now associate with the laser-guided weaponry of the U.S. Air Force.
From its opening salvo, in other words, this conflict has been an air war. With its 75% success rate, al-Qaeda's 9/11 mission was a historic triumph, accurately striking three out of what assumedly were its four chosen targets. (Though no one knows just where that plane in Pennsylvania was heading, undoubtedly it was either the Capitol or the White House to complete the taking out of the icons of American financial, military, and political power.) In the process, almost 3,000 people who had no idea they were in the bombsights of an obscure movement on the other side of the planet were slaughtered.
It was a barbaric, if daring, plan and an atrocity of the first order. Almost 15 years later, such suicidal acts with similar "precision" weaponry (though without the air power component) continue to be unleashed across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and sometimes elsewhere, taking a terrible toll -- from a soccer game in Iraq to a Kurdish wedding party in southeastern Turkey (where the "weapon" may have been a boy).
The effect of the September 11th attacks was stunning. Though the phrase would have no resonance or meaning (other than in military circles) until the U.S. invasion of Iraq began a year and a half later, 9/11 qualifies as perhaps the most successful example of "shock and awe" imaginable. The attack was promptly encapsulated in screaming headlines as the "Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century" or a "New Day of Infamy," and the images of those towers crumbling in New York at what was almost instantly called "Ground Zero" (as if the city had experienced a nuclear strike) were replayed again and again to a stunned world. It was an experience that no one who lived through it was likely to forget.
In Washington, the vice president headed for a deep underground bunker; the secretary of defense, speaking to his aides at the damaged Pentagon, urged them to "Go Massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not" (the first hint of the coming decision to invade Iraq and take out Saddam Hussein); and the president, who was reading a children's story, The Pet Goat, to a class of elementary school students in Sarasota, Florida, while the attacks took place, boarded Air Force One and promptly headed away from Washington. Soon enough, though, he would appear at Ground Zero, bullhorn in hand, and swear that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
Within days, he had announced a "war on terror." And on October 7,2011, less than a month after those attacks, the Bush administration would launch its own air war, dispatching B-2 Stealth bombers with satellite-guided precision weaponry from the U.S., as well as B-1 and B-52 long-range bombers from the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, supplemented by strike aircraft from two U.S. aircraft carriers, and about 50 Tomahawk Cruise missiles fired from ships. And this was just its initial air riposte to al-Qaeda (though the most significant parts of the attack were, in fact, aimed at taking out the Taliban regime that then controlled much of Afghanistan). By the end of December 2001, 17,500 bombs and other munitions had rained down on Afghanistan, 57% of which were reportedly "precision-guided" smart weapons. Released as well, however, were perfectly dumb bombs and cluster munitions filled with "soda can-like" bomblets which scatter over a wide area, don't all explode on contact, and so remain around for civilians to mistakenly pick up.
If you really want to experience shock and awe, however, think about this: almost 15 years have passed and that air war has never ended. In Afghanistan, for instance, in just the first four years of the Obama administration (2009-2012), more than 18,000 munitions were released over the country. And this year, B-52s, those old Vietnam workhorses, retired for a decade in Afghanistan, took to the air again as U.S. air sorties there ramped up against surging Taliban and Islamic state militants.
And that's just to begin to describe the never-ending nature of the American air war that has spread across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa in these years. In response to al-Qaeda's brief set of air strikes against U.S. targets, Washington launched an air campaign that has yet to end, involving the use of hundreds of thousands of bombs and missiles, many of a "precision" sort but some as dumb as they come, against a growing array of enemies. Almost 15 years later, American bombs and missiles are now landing on targets in not one but seven largely Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen).
What are we to make of al-Qaeda's and Washington's "precision" air campaigns? Here are some thoughts:
1. Success and Failure: Without a hint of exaggeration, you could say that, at the cost of $400,000 to $500,000, al-Qaeda's 9/11 air assault created Washington's multi-trillion-dollar Global War on Terror. With a microscopic hijacked air force and a single morning's air campaign, that group provoked an administration already dreaming of global domination into launching a worldwide air war (with a significant ground component) that would turn the Greater Middle East -- then a relatively calm (if largely autocratic) region -- into a morass of conflicts, failed or collapsed states, ruined cities, and refugees by the millions, in which extreme Islamic terror outfits now seem to sprout like so many mushrooms. This, you might say, was the brilliance of Osama bin Laden. Seldom has so little air power (or perhaps power of any sort) been leveraged quite so purposefully into such sweeping consequences. It may represent the most successful use of strategic bombing -- that is, air power aimed at the civilian population of, and morale in, an enemy country -- in history.
On the other hand, with only a slight hint of exaggeration, you might also conclude that seldom has an air campaign without end (almost 15 years and still expanding at the cost of untold billions of dollars) proven quite so unsuccessful. Put another way, you could perhaps conclude that, in these years, Washington has bombed and missiled a world of Islamist terror outfits into existence.
On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda was the most modest of forces with militant followers in perhaps the low thousands in Afghanistan and tiny numbers of scattered supporters elsewhere on the planet. Now, there are al-Qaeda spin-offs and wannabe outfits, often thriving, from Pakistan to Yemen, Syria to North Africa, and of course the Islamic State (ISIS), that self-proclaimed "caliphate" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, still holds a sizeable chunk of territory in Iraq and Syria while its "brand" has spread to groups from Afghanistan to Libya.
Minimally, the U.S. air campaign, which has certainly killed enough terror leaders, "lieutenants," "militants," and others over these years, has shown no ability to halt the process and arguably has ploughed remarkably fertile ground for it. Yet in response to the next terror outrage (as in Libya recently), the bombs continue to fall. It's a curious record in the generally disappointing annals of air power and well worth considering in more detail.
2. Bombs Away!: As 2015 ended, the rate of U.S. bomb and missile use over Iraq and Syria was so high that stockpiles of both were reportedly depleted. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh said, "We're expending munitions faster than we can replenish them. B-1s have dropped bombs in record numbers... We need the funding in place to ensure we're prepared for the long fight. This is a critical need."