Twenty years ago, seven weeks after 9/11, I was the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden. We met in Afghanistan, in the middle of the U.S. bombing campaign. Bin Laden boasted that he had laid a trap that would end up humiliating the United States in Afghanistan — just as had happened to the Soviet Union. He also predicted talks between the United States and the Taliban.
Two decades later bin Laden is dead, but those predictions have come true. And they weren’t the only ones that did.
Americans can find some small consolation, perhaps, in the fact that they managed to take revenge by hunting him down and killing him. But the bigger picture is less reassuring. Al-Qaeda still remains in Afghanistan, and its offshoots continue to wage war in others parts of the world. The rise of the Islamic State has shown that ideas even more extreme than bin Laden’s continue to find followers.
I’m not sure that the United States and the rest of the West has fully absorbed this lesson.
When I met bin Laden for the first time, in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 1997, he predicted that the United States would soon cease to be a superpower — and surprised me by suggesting an alliance of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and China against the United States and India.
The United States is still a superpower, of course. But the second part of his prediction seems to be coming true as I write. Iran has made overtures to the Taliban government, and it in turn has signaled to China that it is willing to forgive Chinese crimes against the Muslim Uyghurs in exchange for recognition and support. China has just responded by offering $31 million in emergency aid to the new Afghan government.
Bin Laden understood that the power of the United States would force its enemies to make common cause. He understood that America’s strength was also its weakness.
After 9/11, I covered wars from Iraq to Syria and from Lebanon to Palestine. Bin Laden had gained the respect of many Muslims — not because of his religious ideology but due to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Washington’s support for puppet governments around the Islamic world. I interviewed Secretary of State Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John F. Kerry and many top U.S. military officials after 9/11. They made sweeping claims about their successes in the war against terrorism, but they seemed unaware that the war was actually producing more terror. The Islamic State is only one example of the blowback generated by the U.S. invasion in Iraq.
There is no doubt that the United States managed to hunt down and kill many top al-Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State leaders with drones after 9/11. Yet it’s also true that the collateral damage from those attacks produced hundreds of new suicide bombers. These suicide bombers became the Taliban’s most effective weapon against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Now the Taliban is itself facing suicide bombers from the Islamic State.
Military power can solve some problems, but it often creates more. Bin Laden wanted to provoke the United States into a massive use of military force because he understood that this would create more problems than it solved. Yet war is not the only way for a country to pursue its interests.
Washington should not repeat its past mistakes. The Americans and their allies abandoned Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. That tipped Afghanistan into civil war, and the Taliban was the ultimate result of that war. Now the country is on the verge of becoming a failed state yet again.
The United States can prove bin Laden wrong by forcing the Taliban to implement the Doha agreement negotiated by the Trump administration. The Americans should pressure the Taliban to stick to its promises that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for attacks against any other country. Biden administration officials are understandably unhappy about the Taliban takeover, but they should realize that they still have genuine leverage. The United States has frozen Afghanistan’s assets. The Taliban needs money to run the state. The United States should do its best to use this to force the Taliban to include women and other political groups in the country’s power structures.
It is undeniably true that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will strengthen Islamist militants everywhere. But if the Taliban fails to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, then the results might be even worse. Failed states are the most attractive bases for people such as Osama bin Laden. He moved from a weak Sudan to a failed Afghanistan in 1996, and then proceeded to plan 9/11.
In an interview in 1998, he told me that the United States could kill him but that it would never capture him alive. He was right about that, too. Let’s not allow him to be right about anything else.
Hamid Mir is a Pakistani journalist and author.