UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The 9/11 decade

I was watching Neighbours, a 22-year old student, when I switched channels and watched 9/11 unfold live on my TV screen. I felt angry and upset, but also a strange sense of pride. Proud that the monstrous minority responsible could and should never be allowed to hold the moral high ground. Pride and respect for the bravery of ordinary Americans whose lives had been torn apart but responded so stoically. Pride too in the way that so many countries rallied unreservedly in support of America.

I remember speaking to a friend that night, barely able to comprehend how many might eventually be dead, and hoping that the West would respond responsibly.

Here was an opportunity for the West, with unity and a high sense of the moral high ground, to punish those responsible but also to heal, over time and not as a knee-jerk concession of defeat, some of the grievances which had not justified or caused 9/11 but were running sores which we had a duty to try to resolve.

This was a line in the sand where we would not so much try to “re-order the world around us" as Tony Blair said on the evening of 9/11, but try to re-order the world around fairness, bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks, being as tough on Israel's defiance of UN resolutions as on Saddam or Mugabe. Above all, I remember being fearful about what would happen next and thinking that it would actually be the West's response, not the attack itself, that would really change the world.

9/11 was an attack different to any other seen before. The most colossal attack on a nation state by a non-state terrorist group. We were seeing buildings felled by groups of extremists, doing things that even in the dark days of the Cold War we thought nation states would never dare to do. They could have killed, and wanted to kill, many thousands more.

There was a sense that, horrific as it was, it could have been worse and could be worse next time. We now faced a threat from shadowy non-state actors that criss-crossed many countries, that were driven and led by ideology more diffuse and perhaps more dangerous than a single nation state or ideological leader. On 9/11, the notion that our greatest threats in a globalised world were no longer from nation states but from elusive, multiple groups of extremists, was the biggest wake-up call.

Here came the difficulty with the response. How to respond to an "act of war" that, this time, was perpetrated by a extremely small group of people, a minority. Bin Laden and Afghanistan were the logical targets to attack, given that Bin Laden was being sheltered there by the Taliban. In the West's reaction to 9/11, it was too quick to define a conflict (“war on terror”) and an opposition (“Al-Qaeda”) that was, and is, almost beyond definition.

The West, under George W Bush's leadership, did more to create the global brand of Al-Qaeda than Bin Laden could ever have hoped to himself. And with Iraq and our misguided attempts to nation-build in Afghanistan, a nation that barely exists as a nation beyond its tribal factions, the West created new grievances to recruit new members of a terrorist "group" that the West itself had created. It was the West that produced the recruitment campaign and the terms of reference for a new global jihadist club.

The reality on the ground was always more complicated than the labels of "war on terror" or "Al-Qaeda" suggested. A shocking event, simplistic in its horrific destruction, led to a simplistic response.

In 2003, America's foreign policy lashed out to Iraq - starting another recruitment campaign for Al-Qaeda in a war against a country with no link to 9/11 except in Saddam Hussein's hatred of Bin Laden and where a policy of containment turned out actually to have achieved its aims of eliminating Saddam's stockpiles of WMD. As we did so, we neglected Afghanistan. Over there, we started fighting the wrong enemy in the Taliban, becoming the latest interlopers in centuries of Afghan civil war, as the remnants of our real terrorist enemy escaped to Pakistan to cause chaos in an already fractious and failing, nuclear-armed state.

Because the West got the original terms of reference for its “war” wrong, success and ultimately victory have never been measurable or achievable. The West created an expectation of success, of “mission accomplished” in a struggle that could never have a clear endpoint.


We need to recognise now in Afghanistan, that the war that the West started can only be ended when the West leaves. The West called it a war, so it ends when we declare our war is over. (The death of Bin Laden, clearly a key driver for the war, is helping the US here). We need to recognise when we have achieved our aims. And the reality is that our aim of denying terrorists the "space" to operate in Afghanistan has largely been achieved. The more significant threat is now in Pakistan; where there was one suicide bombing before 9/11 but since 9/11 thousands have been killed.

When we think about whether and how the world changed after 9/11, there's no doubt that it did. But I'd argue that much of that change was brought about by the West, rather than by extremists. These are fine arguments of cause and effect, so it's difficult to be absolute in that conclusion.

But if we're going to have a safer world, I think we need to think hard about the response and the effect that it had. And it is possible to make that argument whilst at the same time condemning absolutely those who have committed atrocities before, on and since 9/11. But to argue that extremists operate in a vacuum where our foreign policy choices have no influence seems a dangerous line to me.

We have to get these things right - and we got a lot of things wrong post 9/11. We had the moral high ground, and we lost it. We started a war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. We moved from international consensus to deeply divided unilateral action. We did things which subjugated international law and civil liberties, when we probably didn't need to. We became embroiled in a civil war in Afghanistan, ending up fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country long after our original objective was achieved. We ran an extremely effective advertising campaign for Al-Qaeda, reinforcing their brand and churning out regular recruitment material. Above all, we saw too much through our own prism of threats, rather than thinking about threats to others that were also threats to the West, doing little – for example - to help revive the Middle East peace process.

We got so many things wrong because the initial, despicable provocation was so unusual and unexpected. Ten years on, Bin Laden is now dead and the loose network which organised the 9/11 attacks is far weaker that it was. The Arab Spring is showing that people can achieve change through revolution rather than regime change or having the West "re-order the world around us", as Tony Blair suggested. It is the thing that should fill us with most confidence, more so than Bin Laden's largely symbolic death.

It is a glimpse, I think, of the future where the West intervenes more sparingly and subtly. Influencing debate and arguments rather than starting wars. Helping countries from the Middle East to India and Pakistan to resolve differences which threaten wider stability; having a hard-headed, not knee-jerk view of the threats we face (the scale of the current threat from Iran is a case in point); having the courage to do difficult things in new partnerships (trying to end the war in Afghanistan by talking to the Taliban and talking to Iran; facing up to the reality of a Chinese super-power).

The West has moved on a long way since 9/11. Hardly anyone still uses the phrase "war on terror". It's widely agreed that the Iraq War was a mistake. We are being careful in Libya and the wider Arab Spring to support but not to interfere too much. We should now step back in Libya; no more nation-building. US involvement there was significant, but hardly publicised. It's widely agreed that we need a political solution to get out of Afghanistan, but we need to get on with it much more quickly and with much wider participation.

The 9/11 decade's legacy provides many lessons to learn. We need to keep on learning the lessons, and make sure they - along with all those of all nations who have perished - are never forgotten.

On the basis that it's hardly fair to write a piece on 10 years of foreign policy with 20/20 hindsight and not offer detailed thoughts on the future.... in the next few weeks, I’m going to blog again to spell out in more detail the thoughts I have on the big foreign policy challenges of the next decade.

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