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On 11 September 2001 four civil airliners taking off from US airports are hijacked by terrorists on a suicide mission. Two of them are flown into a world-famous symbol of capitalist achievement, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan. A third is deliberately crashed into the Pentagon, the US military command post in Washington. A fourth, destined perhaps for the White House, crashes in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attempt to overwhelm the hijackers.

The deaths in New York number nearly 3000 (the eventual official figure is 2823), with travellers in the planes and the victims in the Pentagon adding several hundred more. It soon becomes evident that the hijackers were Arab Muslims, making it probable that the horrors are linked with the al-qaeda terrorist network set up and funded by the rich Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. [link to sc] Documentary and video evidence is subsequently found, confirming his involvement and his pleasure at the outcome. Bin Laden's base is in Afghanistan where he first went in 1982 to fight with the Taliban and other mujaheddin in their campaign to end the Soviet occupation of their country. It is there that he has created camps to train al-qaeda terrorists to attack his more recent targets, the capitalist and infidel nations of the west.

A few days after 9/11 President Bush tells the American people that the country is now engaged in a War on Terror. The first aim of the war is to demolish bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. To this end the Bush administration is able to form a coalition with the United Kingdom and subsequently convince sufficient leaders of other nations to join an alliance (crucial is neighbouring Pakistan, which has previously supported the Taliban).

On September 20, less than two weeks after 9/11, a demand is sent to the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group at this time in control of Afghanistan, to hand over bin Laden and close down his training camps. The response of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, is that he is unable to do this - pleading ignorance of where bin Laden is, but also no doubt reluctant to surrender a guest who shares his fundamentalist views and has provided financial support to the Taliban, and whose forces are probably as powerful as the Taliban army.

On October 7 missile attacks are launched against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets (in an operation code-named Enduring Freedom). It is the start of a bombing campaign which lasts into the early weeks of 2002. There are inevitably civilian casualties (known in the jargon of modern war as 'collateral damage') when missiles and bombs go astray, but in general the bombardment is extraordinarily accurate. The training camps are rapidly destroyed, as are many Taliban military installations. And the Taliban infantry dug in on the ground endure an unrelenting bombardment with massive explosives. The Taliban base, the city of Kandahar, is taken on 7 December 2011 but the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, escapes the net. The whereabouts of this second-most-wanted man become unknown, as do those of the prime target, Osama bin Laden.

It is widely believed that bin Laden has withdrawn, with many of his fighters, to the Tora Bora mountains on the eastern border with Pakistan where he has earlier tunnelled out a range of well-equipped caves as a safe haven against the Russians. The next wave of US bombing is therefore directed against these mountains. One by one the caves are taken by Afghan forces, now working with a few US forces on the ground. Large numbers of al-qaeda troops are killed or captured. But their leader proves as elusive as Mullah Omar. When the war fizzles out, early in 2002, there are two evident benefits. The brutal Taliban regime has been toppled. And the network of training camps in Afghanistan has been destroyed. But the additional purpose of bringing bin Laden to justice remains unfulfilled.

In 2002 the US army establishes on US territory in Cuba the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to imprison and interrogate suspected terrorists captured in the War on Terror. It becomes one of the most controversial aspects of US policy in terms of mistreatment of the inmates, the secrecy of army interrogation rather than of a civil trial, and the detention of the majority for years without being charged or convicted.


Taliban insurgency: from 2004

Within two years of their eviction in 2002 the Taliban are back in Afghanistan, this time as an insurgent force. The renewed war against them, led by the USA and UK, demonstrates the familiar problem of a conventional army confronted by guerrilla tactics. It proves extremely costly in lives and money. By 2013 the allied nations are making plans to withdraw as soon as possible, after taking steps for several years to train the Afghan security forces to fend for themselves.

The reason why the Taliban have been able to return to the country is because the western allies have regarded the war as being won in 2002, and in 2003 they are distracted by another war in Iraq. This has been a dangerous possibility ever since Saddam Hussein was enabled to remain in power after the Gulf War of 1990-91 . A condition of this has been that he destroys all his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD, covering nuclear, chemical and biological examples). Saddam regularly puts difficulties in the way of the UN inspectors charged with checking that this has happened. This apparent refusal to cooperate convinces Bush, and subsequently the British prime minister Tony Blair that Saddam has WMD. Together they present a case justifying an invasion to destroy the weapons.

Their evidence is weak and not fully in keeping with the details submitted to them by their security services. Failing to persuade the United Nations to authorize invasion, they decide to take military action without authority but at the head of a coalition of other nations. The Iraq War [link to section in Iraq] begins in March 2003. It seems to many that the main purpose of the two western leaders is regime change, the removal of Saddam Hussein, a step which Bush's father, President George H. W. Bush, had refrained from taking in 1991. They insist however that their purpose is solely the finding and destruction of his WMD. No such weapons have ever subsequently been found but Saddam is driven from Baghdad and eventually captured and executed. Victory in the brief war followed by successful regime change plunges Iraq into a cycle of violence, terror and anarchy similar to the long-term situation in Afghanistan.


Barack Obama: since 2009

The presidential election of 2008 brings to the fore two powerful new figures in the American political scene. One is someone who has already been prominent as the wife of President Clinton and America's First Lady. During her husband's presidency Hillary Clinton has been the main architect of his health care reform proposal and in 2000 she enters mainstream politics, becoming the first former First Lady to stand for an elected public office. She becomes one of the two senators for the state of New York. In 2007 she takes another major step, declaring her candidacy for adoption as the Democratic presidential contender in the election of 2008.

In her campaign she comes up against a relatively new face in Washington, Barack Obama. He has been in the city since 2004 as a senator for Illinois, but has not had a high profile until in 2007 he joins the group of Democrats competing to be the presidential candidate. He immediately attracts attention by his relaxed manner and his brilliantly powerful oratory (his way with words has already been evident in his account of his early life published in 2004, Dreams from My Father).

The contest is close and at times bitter but Obama prevails, partly because of his introduction of a new modern campaigning technique, the building up of support through the efficient use of social media such as Facebook. This also stands him in good stead in the presidential campaign, leading to his defeat of his Republican rival John Cain. He becomes the first African American to be elected president. Obama invites Hillary Clinton to join his administration and she becomes an extremely successful Secretary of State during his first term. She decides not to continue if he is re-elected in 2012, saying she is looking forward to a return to private life. Since then she has consistently denied that she has any intention to run for the presidency in 2016, but polls indicate that she is by far the most popular choice among Democrats for the presidential nomination.

In his first year in office Obama signs into law an impressive succession of liberal policies. These include child health insurance, gay rights, greenhouse gases and global warming, hate crimes against victims on the basis of their sexual orientation, the early withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and the relaxing of existing restrictions on stem cell research and on a woman's right to have an abortion. His only disappointment, a major one, is the implementation of his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay. This results from opposition in Congress to the moving of detainees into the USA to be dealt with by the normal judicial process.

One major initiative during his first month is the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is part of his response to the crisis that has erupted a few months before his presidency and will to a large extent overshadow it the global recession. Obama immediately makes it clear that his response to the disaster is on the Keynesian side, putting federal money into the economy to stimulate recovery. The Act authorizes the use of $787 billion of public money for this purpose, to be distributed over several years. Its measures include increased government spending on health care, education and infrastructure projects, together with various tax breaks and incentives. When combined with other similar interventions in the economy the system seems to work.

The nation is considered by many economists to be in recession when Barack Obama enters the White House in 2009. A few years later the situation seems greatly improved. The annual GDP in 2008 is $13961 billion; in 2012 it is $14991 billion, with predictions in mid-2013 that the figure for this year will be $15684 billion. Wall Street is buoyant. In March 2009, at the height of the crisis, the Dow-Jones index dips below 7500; in August 2013 it is at the record level of 15,500. And unemployment is falling. On the other hand, at the same time, the annual growth rate of the GDP is only 1.7%.

Obama is at this point less than a year into his second term, having defeated the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.


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