2001 World News Events

Updated September 14, 2021 | Infoplease Staff
—Borgna Brunner

The ultimatum issued to the Taliban after Sept. 11 to turn over bin Laden was the last of several such demands made by the U.S. and the UN after bin Laden was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa (the U.S. also responded then by launching retaliatory missile attacks on Sudan and an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan). Binding their fate to bin Laden's, the Taliban became the target of daily air strikes by the U.S. and Britain in October. The Pentagon has warned that the military conflict may be difficult and prolonged; Afghanistan has famously thwarted invasions by powerful enemies in the past.

Three years of severe drought had resulted in a growing famine in Afghanistan. Before Sept. 11, an estimated 3.5 million Afghan refugees were already subsisting in bordering countries; another million had been internally displaced. After Sept. 11, eviscerated by decades of nearly constant war and poverty, Afghanistan's 26 million people found themselves caught between the might of a superpower and the ruthlessness of an extremist jihad. But in just two short months (Oct. 7–Dec. 9), U.S. air strikes, combined with Northern Alliance troops on the ground (a multi-ethnic militia of mujahideen who had been fighting the Taliban since their takeover), managed to topple the Taliban regime. (For more on the military conflict, see “The News of 2001: Fighting Global Terrorism”). But the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda members continued.

The Taliban, a group of militant Islamic fundamentalists, came to power in 1996 after a six-year civil war between various factions of Islamic guerrillas (mujahideen), who, no longer united in their long struggle against a brutal Soviet invasion (1979–1989), turned on each other. The Taliban brought a measure of stability to the impoverished and war-torn land, but its harsh and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law, oppression of women, and active support of terrorism turned the regime into an international pariah. Only three countries—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates—have ever recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government.

Afghanistan served as a cold-war battleground for the U.S., which spent a reported $3 billion training and equipping the mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation. Once the Soviets were defeated, however, the U.S. withdrew, abandoning the anarchic and exhausted country to its own devices. The CIA-funded mujahideen of the Soviet era became the fractious groups engaged in the civil war that followed, producing a fertile ground for Islamic extremism.

The U.S. and the international community have vowed to assist Afghanistan in forming a stable government and have pledged $25 billion for reconstruction. Such “nation-building,” formerly derided by the Bush administration, has become of paramount importance. But complex political, ideological, and ethnic differences, deepened by decades of war, made the formation of a broad-based representative government challenging. The Northern Alliance, made up of minority ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras), had no large popular base but was instrumental in routing the Taliban. Ex-king Zahir Shah, exiled since 1973 and now 87, has been suggested as a largely symbolic leader—he is a Pashtun, the ethnicity of half the population, including most of the Taliban. Pashtuns have historically dominated political leadership in Afghanistan.

Beginning Nov. 27, negotiations began in a UN-brokered meeting near Bonn, Germany, to discuss the formation of a new government, and on Dec. 5, Hamid Karzai was named to head an interim Afghan government. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun from the city of Kandahar, is the leader of the powerful 500,000-strong Populzai clan, which has supplied Afghanistan's kings since 1747. He was chosen partly based on his modern political skills and his traditional credentials. Karzai enjoys strong support from the west and has been embraced by a broad spectrum of factions in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, India, and Kashmir

Close ties with Afghanistan's Taliban government thrust Pakistan into a difficult position following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan broke with its neighbor to become the United States' chief ally in the region. In return, President Bush ended sanctions (instituted after Pakistan's testing of nuclear weapons in 1998), rescheduled its debt, and helped to bolster the legitimacy of Pervez Musharraf's rule—the general came to power in a military coup in 1999 and appointed himself president in 2001.

But strong ideological and cultural links to the Taliban have spawned virulent anti-American feeling in the country, and a percentage of the population consider Musharraf's pro-American stance collaborationist and a betrayal of Islam. Another source of widespread resentment is the U.S.'s desertion of Pakistan after it helped the U.S. drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. As Pakistan's current UN representative bluntly put it, “you left us in the lurch with all the problems stemming from the war: an influx of refugees, the drug and gun running, a Kalashnikov culture.”

Two of the three wars that India and Pakistan have fought since their partition 54 years ago—as well as countless smaller skirmishes—have centered on the disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan has fought India for control of predominantly Muslim Kashmir with support of mujahideen from various parts of the world. While Pakistan refers to these troops as Kashmiri freedom fighters, India denounces them as Islamic terrorists. In the last decade alone, more than 30,000 deaths have resulted from the chronic fighting, and in 1998 the seemingly regional conflict evolved into a global threat after both India and Pakistan demonstrated their nuclear weapons capabilities.

In October violence again broke out in the region when a suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based militant organization killed 38 in India-controlled Kashmir. India retaliated on Oct. 15 with heavy shelling across the “line of control” that divides the region. India, angered by Washington's sudden coziness to Pakistan, took the opportunity to point out that while Pakistan might be helping the U.S. fight terrorism on the Afghan front, it was simultaneously supporting terrorism on its own borders with India. The timing was unfortunate for the U.S.—the escalation of the fighting in Kashmir threatened to weaken Musharraf's somewhat tenuous hold on power, crucial to the U.S.'s military strategy against Afghanistan. At the same time, the U.S., in its global fight against terrorism, could hardly ignore India's terrorist problems.

Middle East

The renewal of violence in the Middle East since the fall of 2000 (more than 800 people have been killed between Sept. 2000 and Sept. 2001, most of them Palestinians) and the collapse of the peace process paved the way for the stunning landslide victory of right-wing Likud leader Ariel Sharon over incumbent Labour Party leader Ehud Barak in Feb. 2001. With the Barak-brokered peace negotiations in shambles and Palestinian-Israeli relations deteriorating, Sharon's uncompromising stance on Israeli security became a powerful draw. Since the election, violence has continued at an alarming rate. Palestinians have carried out some of the most horrific suicide bombings in years, and Israeli F-16 fighter jets have bombed Palestinian territory. Unable to sustain a cease-fire, both sides drew further away from new peace negotiations. After mounting violence against Israelis in the fall, Israel condemned the Palestinian Authority on Dec. 3 as a “terror-supporting entity,” and severed all ties with its leader Yasir Arafat. Thereafter the Israeli army began bombing Palestinian areas.

Macedonia and the Balkans

The long-simmering resentment of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians erupted into violence in March, prompting the government to send troops into the heavily Albanian western section of the country. The rebels sought greater autonomy within Macedonia, including official recognition of the Albanian language. The more radical aspired to create a greater Albania, one that would unite the ethnic Albanians of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania proper, but there was little enthusiasm for pan-Albanianism among Macedonia's war-weary neighbors. On Aug. 13, after six months of fighting, the rebels and the Macedonian government signed a peace agreement that allowed a British-led NATO force to enter the country and disarm the guerrillas. The guerrillas handed over weapons in exchange for the promise of constitutional amendments granting greater rights to Macedonia's Albanians. The ending of the conflict was one of the most placid in the recent troubled history of the Balkans.

In June, Yugoslavia turned over disgraced former president Slobodan Milosevic to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, which charged him with crimes against humanity and genocide. Milosevic is the first former head of state to face an international war-crimes court. As a result, the UN Security Council lifted the arms embargo on Yugoslavia, removing the last sanction against the country.

Northern Ireland

After issuing one last ultimatum to the IRA to begin destroying its weapons stores, in July Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble resigned his post as first minister of the Northern Ireland coalition government. As had been the case in the past year-and-a-half, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, continued to stall on disarmament. Trimble concluded he had exhausted his political viability: while Sinn Fein continued to dangle the promise of disarmament just out of reach, many hard-line Protestants perceived Trimble as a dupe of the IRA. Trimble's resignation threatened to topple the Northern Ireland assembly and return rule to the British—the government had in fact already been suspended twice since its formation in Dec. 1999.

Following Trimble's departure, the IRA offered another vague and open-ended disarmament plan, only to withdraw it. But on Oct. 23, days before Britain was to suspend the assembly, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams dramatically announced that the IRA had indeed begun disarming. Partially in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which made the IRA's claim to weapons of terror seem even more senselessly brutal, Sinn Fein chose to embrace the promise of a political solution to the Northern Irish troubles. On Nov. 6, David Trimble again assumed the post of first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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