The events on September 11th 2001 changed the world forever. While they continue to have a profound impact on events today, it is too early to determine their complete historical significance.
The coordinated attacks on September 11th were by far the most disastrous terrorist attacks of all time. Their significance lay in the fact that they targeted the most iconic of American institutions and edifices. America suddenly felt vulnerable. The Pacific and the Atlantic were no longer enough to protect the country from overseas threats. The attacks had an extensive effect on America’s collective psyche and fundamentally changed the country. The country is much less innocent and trusting than before. Executive power has expanded, civil liberties are more restrained, and, in daily life, getting through airport security has become more onerous.
The external implications have arguably been greater than internal ones for America. It first went to war with Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq. It still has troops tied down in both countries and is involved in messy combat in Pakistan. This military engagement has led to expenditure of blood and treasure at a time of deep economic crisis. America is bogged down in a quagmire with little idea how to get out of it.
The Back Story
The September 11 attacks occurred because America in particular and the world in general were inattentive to the magnitude of the threat that al-Qaeda and the Taliban posed to international security. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, America took its eye off the ball. Saudi money and American expertise had fueled the mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, so did American interest in Afghanistan. This left the field open for Pakistan to fund, train, and support the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in order to gain the strategic depth that it has always desired as a defense against India. The implications of the future for Afghanistan and the rest of the world were clear when the Taliban took over Kabul and executed the former President Najibullah, who had taken refuge in the UN compound. He was castrated, his fingers were broken, and he was dragged to death behind a truck in the streets. His blood-soaked body was hung for the public to see in Aryana Square.
With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda found a secure base to train and carry out its attacks. The first al-Qaeda attack was carried out in Aden in Yemen in 1992; the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993; American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998 and the American warship, USS Cole, was attacked in 2000.
Terrorism was not the monopoly of al-Qaeda during this period. The Taliban regime unleashed a program of repression and internal terror against its opponents. It collaborated closely with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which unleashed terrorism within Indian borders. The number of bombings and fatalities increased dramatically in India through the 1990s. The highpoint of this terror campaign was the hijacking of an Indian plane to Kandahar that was largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. The events on September 11 finally propelled America into action, and the Taliban era in Afghanistan was terminated. Finally, al-Qaeda was on the run, which critically impaired its ability to launch spectacular strikes.
All military philosophers from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz warn against fighting on two fronts. Nevertheless, after a decade of under-reacting to the provocations of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, America overreacted to Saddam Hussein and decided to fight a second war without conclusively winning the first one. Going into Iraq was a historic mistake. It took America’s eye off Afghanistan precisely at a time when it could have gone ahead and finished the task there. Iraq, as it turns out, did not represent a strategic threat. Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but was a socialist from the Ba’ath party who shared mutual animosity with al-Qaeda. He had been rendered impotent by a decade of sanctions and air strikes.
The democracy agenda that was given as a reason for invasion was bought by noone except ideologues and hardcore supporters. Even well-wishers guffawed at the idea of America promoting democracy while it was friends with the Saudi royal family and the then Pakistani military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. The democracy agenda was seen as a hollow slogan and laid America open to the charge of hypocrisy. More pertinently, as Clausewitz pointed out, war has to be waged for finite aims. Establishing democracy involves changing systems of governance, creating rule of law, erecting institutions and even changing culture. For intervening foreign powers, creating a democracy is a highly onerous if not impossible goal. By setting such a nebulous and non-finite goal, America found itself in a cul-de-sac. It got stuck in Iraq, was unable to give attention to Afghanistan, and inflamed Arab and Muslim opinion.
While America was stuck in Afghanistan, Pakistan tried to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds]. It carried out operations in its border areas to quell the most restive elements of the Taliban. At the same time, it tacitly sheltered key elements in the Taliban. It is no surprise that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbotabad, barely a stone’s throw away from its fabled military academy.
It is often joked that Pakistan is defined by the three As – Allah, Army and America. Recently created as a self-consciously Muslim nation ruled by aristocrats, Pakistani leaders have always had to pay homage to its religious roots. Created after the division of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan has had an existential fear of India. This has led to many military coups with army generals running the roost for protracted periods of time. The army has sought strategic depth, and its Inter-Services Intelligence created the Taliban to have a strong ally wielding control in Afghanistan. After 1947, India jumped into the arms of the Soviet Union. This led Pakistan to ally itself with America and Pakistan joined American led alliances such as SEATO and CENTO. America has acted as godfather to Pakistan and showered it with financial and military aid over many decades.
The September 11 attacks have completely changed the relationship between Pakistan and America. The three As are no longer in sync. The younger army officers see America as an aggressor violating their sovereignty at will. They tend to come from humbler class backgrounds and are more religious. The Scotch-drinking ruling class to which Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz belonged is increasingly less powerful. This nuclear-armed country is being pulled apart in a million directions and is a nightmare for policy makers worldwide. The Economist blithely asserts that over the next ten years America has to win back the trust of allies, especially Pakistan. Realists understand the very real possibility that ten years hence Pakistan might no longer be an ally of the United States and there may not even be a Pakistan.
It seems inevitable that Iran will end up with a nuclear weapon. Its incompetent regime uses nationalism to win public support, and the CIA-led coup that overthrew Mossadegh in 1953 is still an abiding national memory. Mossadegh was not the most pleasant of personalities, but he was a nationalist with widespread support of his people. By illegally overthrowing him in a coup on British advice and installing the Shah, America lost the faith of the Iranian nation. So anti-America posturing ends up being the best way for its decrepit regime to stay in power. Iran has, of course, added venomous anti-Israeli posturing to its repertoire.
Iran is likely to see major upheavals similar to those in the Arab world. A young population without jobs will not put up with repression forever. Whipping up anti-American and anti-Israeli hysteria will not suffice forever. Iran’s strategic advantage of being able to nip at America’s heels in both Iraq and Afghanistan will not save it from the failure of governance by its government. This scenario should not be dismissed, and the world needs to be prepared for the Iranian version of the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring
Finally, after decades of slumber, Arab populations have rebelled against their corrupt and incompetent leaders. The old order is dead, but we have no clue what the new order will look like. If history is any guide, then the aftermath of these movements is likely to be messy. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of September 11th, the Israeli embassy in Cairo has been stormed. Libyan rebel leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj claims that Britain’s spy agency, MI6, aided his rendition in 2004 to Libya where he was subsequently tortured. It is possible that the Arab Spring might lead to some Robespierre grasping power, a fear haunting many policymakers, especially those in Israel.
The answer is not Niall Ferguson’s desire for imperial intervention against an irresistible tide but an intelligent, nimble, and constant engagement with the key players in this movement. So far the Arab Spring has repudiated the ideology of al-Qaeda or expressions of theocratic extremism, but this cannot be taken for granted. The movement will remain rational as long as its leaders feel they have enough of a stake in the emerging system. This requires engagement of all actors, including the widely distrusted Muslim Brotherhood.
Calmer minds in Israel and Palestine yearn for peace. They have spent a lifetime fighting and neither side can wish away the existence of the other. Israel is now a fait accompli with a dynamic economy, enviable entrepreneurial energy, and dysfunctional democratic politics. Palestine is divided between Gaza and the West Bank with tensions between the two Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah. Although the conditions of the Palestinians are dire, demography is in their favor; in addition, over 20% of Israeli citizens are of Arab descent. Many issues seem intractable but without a push for peace, the angst in Muslim populations is only likely to amplify. Turkey has already drifted apart from Israel after many years of close alliance. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Egypt might portend things to come.
In the Arab and wider Muslim world, there is a pervasive belief that America is not an honest mediator and is yoked at the hip with Israel. This belief is counter-productive to American interests. In the years to come as the Arab Spring gathers momentum, the two state solution endorsed by President George W. Bush is the best way to ward off pan-Arab anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment.
Ten years after the events on September 11, China has started to emerge as the giant that it historically has been. China’s economy has been growing rapidly. It has built infrastructure including roads, ports, and power plants not only for its own people but also for the continent of Africa. It is now Brazil’s biggest trading partner. It is investing large sums in scientific and technological development and is now the world’s biggest lender.
China’s expansion has been largely quiet except for slight noises over some islands around its coast. Already, there is talk of China replacing America as the dominant power in the coming century. Cyber attacks from China on American installations have leaders in Washington, DC worried. China’s neighbors, such as India and Japan, are suddenly developing closer military ties. The rhetoric in many countries about China ranges from the unreasonable to the hysterical. In China, too, there is a strain of hyper nationalism. Yet again engagement is the answer for all parties involved.
Ten years after the events on September 11, Americans are mired in an economic recession with the specter of few jobs and high debt raising questions not only about American global leadership but also about the survival of America’s way of life. America needs to realize that terrorism will continue to be a persistent problem and “a war on terror” is both naïve semantics and a foolish idea. To contain terrorism, all countries will need to cooperate and remain constantly vigilant. Attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, Bali, and many other places have shown that terrorism is going to operate along increasingly fragmented lines instead of the tight knit al-Qaeda model of the past. This will demand a response characterized by creativity and cooperation amongst key powers.
America no longer has the treasure or blood to expend on poorly designed military operations. It has to define its interests very clearly and use its limited resources more wisely. It has to involve rising powers like Brazil, Turkey, India, and China more closely in maintaining global order. Clinging on to old allies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan will not serve its strategic goals. America has to accept that despite its best efforts, some terrorist attacks will still happen. It has to prepare for such eventualities. It has to accommodate China, reactivate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, engage with emerging players in the Arab Spring, deal astutely with Pakistan and Iran, and come up with a way to leave Iraq. This is a tall order and America will need the help of other nations to handle everything on its plate.
Finally, the world as a whole has to address the problems of the future instead of fighting wars of the past. Food, water, and energy might lead to new tensions. Biological or chemical terrorism might be the new risk. An attack similar to the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995 may occur again. The best way to avoid events of the scale of September 11th is to be vigilant and responsive. The world had almost a decade to respond to al-Qaeda’s ascendance but the end of the Cold War had lulled policymakers to sleep. From now on, the sentinels have to remain alert and awake.