On this 10th anniversary of Al-Qaeda’s successful attack on New York and the Pentagon, there are many heart-felt and important testimonials, tributes, and memorials being offered by various groups and people. Most of these involve remembering the victims, profiling the survivors, and exploring the meaning of “9/11” as the event has come to be known in American culture.  I would like to point to the historical roots of the attack as a learning opportunity for some of the events occurring in the Middle East.

Back in the late 1970’s and through most of the 1980’s, there was a war in Afghanistan between the Soviet Union (backing a newly formed Afghan government) and the insurgent mujahideen (freedom fighters against the godless Communists).  This was, of course, during the Cold War, so the US got involved by sending forces over to train the mujahideen on Pakistani soil with money from the Saudis (like the bin Ladens).  Osama learned guerilla tactics during such training sessions.

Also during this time, there was an Iranian Revolution which replaced the pro-American Shah with a previously exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.  Again, the US decided to get involved and encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, and Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld as emissary to the Iraqi leader, eventually providing arms and other support (including biological weapons).

Both of these wars drained the combatants significantly in monetary and human resources.  When both wars finally ended (in 1989 and 1988 respectively), nothing had really changed in Iran or Afghanistan, other than large-scale destruction.  The US pulled out of the post-conflict, and especially in Afghanistan, the mujahideen were left to fend for themselves.  The “freedom fighters” were not well-received in their home countries and eventually evolved into bands of stateless warriors, hardened both physically and spiritually by their battles.

In 1990, bankrupt and under pressures from his creditors, Saddam invaded Kuwait under various pretenses.  Again, the US interceded, this time alongside a coalition with outright military forces (Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made several trips to meet with the Saudi king during the buildup of support for military action).  As the US-led forces of Operation Desert Shield were based in Saudi Arabia, the mujahideen were outraged that an Islamic government would let traitorous infidels use the holy land to wage war against other Muslim faithfuls.  Toward the end of the war, the US encouraged an Iraqi-led uprising, and Kurdish forces in the north began to fight, hoping to trigger a coup d’état.  When US support failed to materialize, Saddam’s troops crushed the rebellion and drove many of the Kurds out and into Turkey and Iran.  A month later, US troops began to withdraw, having failed to start a successful coup d’état and not willing to pay the political and human costs to topple Saddam.

Over the next 10 years, Osama bin Laden probed US intelligence capabilities and reactions with a variety of attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as on the USS Cole.  He effectively mapped our strengths and weakness (with help from his sources in the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence services), overloaded our intelligence system, and shored up the security of his own organization (by checking for leaks in Al Qaeda), which ultimately led to the successful attacks on September 11th, 2001.

These attacks in turn led the US to invade Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden.  Shortly after, we also invaded Iraq under certain pretenses, eventually toppling Saddam.  Both of these wars have cost us billions of dollars, tens of thousands of casualties (that’s wounded and killed), and facilitated our current recession.

So why the history lesson?  Because there are several things going on that ought to be critically looked at with a historical eye.  There was much talk about an “Arab Spring” which were a series of demonstrations and revolutions in the “Arab world.”  Only one revolution (Tunisia), finally saw a change in regime and was led and completed solely by its own people.  In Egypt, although President Mubarak stepped down, he ceded all power to the military, which is still in the “process” of instituting reforms alongside the new president Essam Sharaf.  In Libya (where NATO forces have provided direct military aid against Gaddaffi’s troops), the terrorist/not-a-terrorist/illegitimate leader’s (1970s-2003/2004-2010/2011) regime has just collapsed, and now the real test of change will begin.

Protests in Syria are still being met with brutal crackdowns.  Yemeni and other protests are still ongoing, while other countries (Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sudan, etc.) have seen their protests fizzle out with no change.

The point, it seems to me, is for the US (and the West in general) to tread carefully in these volatile situations.  Nor should we be so short-sighted to think that our actions (or lack thereof) won’t have consequences that can manifest themselves over the next 20 to 30 years.

Otherwise, the pain we’ve endured and the lessons we should have learned from 9/11 will have been in vain—and that would be another tragedy itself.

Note: Most of this information comes from George Friedman’s book America’s Secret War (2004).