On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans perished in the Al Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States. The next month, the United States launched an invasion of Afghanistan in retribution. After rapidly deposing the Taliban and shattering Al Qaeda, the American mission shifted toward establishing a secular republic defended by local security forces.
The endeavor achieved early success with the ratification of a constitution and its first national elections in 2004, but it slowly began to unravel as endemic corruption hindered effective governance and the continued American presence, peaking at 100,000 troops in 2010, failed to completely eradicate the Taliban insurgency.
In 2020, the United States concluded an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw. In August 2021, the scheduled American departure devolved into chaos marked by the tragic death of thirteen service members in a terrorist attack. The disastrous exit only punctuated the failure of the twenty-year intervention.
The president may have declared “there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” but the sentiment provides no solace to the families of the fallen of any year after which leadership could have and should have withdrawn forces.
All of the What-Ifs
The question of what if is an eternal torment in the aftermath of disheartening history, but in revisiting twenty years of decisions and events, it is impossible to not ask the question.
What if the previous president had withdrawn troops immediately upon taking office as he had promised? What if his predecessor had foregone a surge and had ended the deployment during his presidency? What if the president who launched the invasion had withdrawn after the 2004 election? What if the initial invasion force had captured Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001? What if America hadn’t invaded Afghanistan?
Finally, what if the United States had a sophisticated understanding of revolutionary Islam and exploited the fissure between Shia and Sunni fundamentalism?
This last counterfactual begins in 1979, when Islamic fundamentalism first surfaced. In that year, Shia fundamentalists overthrew the American-backed Shah in Iran and Sunni fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, nearly overthrowing the American-allied monarchy there as well. The two events heralded the ascent of Islamic consciousness as a revolutionary force in the region.
The United States, however, missed the significance as it focused on the Soviet Union, which had been interfering in Afghanistan affairs throughout the year and had invaded the country by the year’s end.
American leadership understood the Afghan resistance identified itself as “holy warriors,” but not the distinction between Sunni and Shia fundamentalism.
The Threat and the Missed Opportunity
Like communism during the Cold War, revolutionary Islam is hardly monolithic. The twin branches of radical Islam both strive to impose their brand of Islamic law and to eliminate Western influence in the region. Moreover, both seek to overthrow apostate (e.g. secular) regimes in the Muslim world establish a “caliphate” ruling over all current (and former) Muslim lands.
The schism traces back to a dispute over succession after the death of Mohammed, Islam’s founder, in 632. The preponderance of adherents wanted Mohammed’s successor to be selected by the community; a minority preferred the next leader come from his family. The former prevailed but only after violence left the two sects irreconcilable. The former became the Sunni and the latter became the Shia and the division persists to this day.
In 1998, America missed an opportunity to pit these divergent extremisms against each other.
In August of that year, American attention to Afghanistan concerned Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. In retaliation, America launched cruise missiles at Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill bin Laden. The strike failed and American attention quickly shifted back to domestic matters, namely the impeachment proceedings against the president.
Meanwhile, the respective Sunni and Shia fundamentalist states of Afghanistan and Iran almost went to war.
In August 1998, the Taliban had not yet secured complete control of Afghanistan; in particular, it had been unable to overcome the opposition Northern Alliance, a coalition of groups supported by multiple countries, including Iran.
When the Taliban captured Mazar-i-Sharif, a key operating base for the Northern Alliance, ten Iranian diplomats were murdered. Taliban leadership blamed the murders on renegade members but Iran held the Taliban responsible for their deaths and, by mid-September, would deploy over 200,000 troops to its eastern border with Afghanistan.
Mediation under the auspices of the United Nations eventually defused the crisis and, according to open source information, the United States did not attempt to steer the crisis in any direction.
But it should have – towards war.
What Could Have Been
If an Afghanistan-Iranian war had resulted, the consequences would reverberated across the region for years – and would have spared the United States the tragedy of 9/11 and its devastating aftermath.
If Iran had invaded, Afghanistan would have very probably become the quagmire it has been for invaders going back centuries. As British, Soviet, and now American invasions have demonstrated, Afghans win by simply not losing and stalemating the invading force. Nevertheless, the Taliban might have had to retreat from tentatively held areas, reigniting the civil war that was nearing its conclusion.
Within Iran, a prolonged military impasse might have destabilized the regime. Specifically, hardline radicals, already opposed to then President Khatami’s reform agenda and outreach to the West, would have used any stalemate as a pretext to demand the leadership’s removal or attempt to overthrow it. (Less probable but equally disruptive, discontented ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds, might have attempted to secede.)
Alternatively, Iranian military success would have bolstered the regime’s profile in the region with the corresponding temptation to expand its influence. However, the triumph of the Shia regime over a Sunni regime might have spurred more assertive Sunni balancing across the region. (Sunni states have indeed aligned against Shia Iran in recent years, but only in response to Iran’s improved position after the U.S. deposed hostile regimes on its borders.)
Lastly, a local Afghan-Iranian war might have sparked a wider regional conflict. Specifically, Saudi Arabia, the region’s leading Sunni power and the Taliban’s principal patron, might have led a coalition of Sunni countries against Iran. In turn, Iran would have insisted its ally Syria enter the war as well as activating its surrogates in Lebanon and Palestine, Hezbollah and Hamas, to unleash terrorist campaigns in their environs.
The eventual scope of this war would have depended on how states where Sunni minority elites governed Shia majority populations, such as Iraq and Bahrain, would have acted. These countries may have decided to enter the war against an Iran-led Shia coalition, but they might have had to cope with Shia uprisings that would have been eagerly abetted by Iranian intelligence.
Ultimately, the result could have been a bloody sectarian war between and within multiple countries. Nonetheless, it would have precluded any possibility Al Qaeda would have the bandwidth to plan and execute the September 11th attacks.
While the prospect of millions dying in a war is tragic, but so has been the American experience in this region.
Acknowledged—arguing the United States should have helped engineer a “bloody sectarian war” to avoid tragedy runs counter to American values, but contrary to American interests…
Instead of asking “why do they hate us?”, we could have ensured their hatred remained directed at each other.
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In memory of fallen American citizens and service members on and since September 11, 2001.
Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He has been published in RealClearDefense, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and Modern War Institute.