9/11 in retrospect
Ten years after 9/11, the decade following that fateful day in September seems to be a tale full of sound and fury, signifying little for world politics.
At a time when everyone is writing reams on the significance of this event, such a categorical dismissal may not go down well. But it still needs to be said.
When the attacks took place in the US on September 11, 2001, the clamour was that this event had triggered off a world conflict on the scale of the recently ended Cold War. An unimaginative but understandable prediction.
People tend to view the future in the prism of the past. Having but recently emerged from a worldwide conflict, analysts and historians were scrambling to find a new two way rivalry that would allow them to define the world in familiar terms. Used to a bipolar world, they wanted to find another conflict that entailed two ideologies and two camps. The result was a narrative built around the west and Islam or the West and radical Islam (for the politically correct westerners and Muslims who did not want to accused of Orientalism).
But did Osama Bin Laden and his men provide a worthy successor to the Eastern bloc?
The Cold War lasted a good fifty years and divided the world into two blocs, forcing a third set of countries to form a non aligned movement (however aligned each one of its members were) and led to wars from Latin America to Africa to Asia.
The enemy was known, identified and publicly so. If one of the earliest leaders of the Cold War (British prime minister Winston Churchill) used the term iron curtain for Eastern Europe, one of the last (US president Ronald Reagan) called the Soviet Union the evil empire. The enmity was not kept a secret.
It was also a war about competing ideologies followed by two sets of states. And as both had publicly declared war on each other, the end had to come with the defeat of one side. And it did — one bloc and ideology was defeated and destroyed. By the time the Cold War ended, Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc both collapsed. All the states within reformed their political and economic systems. For instance Eastern Germany merged with Western part and adopted the economic and political system of the latter.
Second, communism was no longer an ideology or system of governance that was an option for governments once the war ended; most of the states shifted to free market economy and most outside of the Middle East were pressured to turn to democratic processes.
Did 9/11 bring about a similar face off and a similar end? There was the ‘western’ world on the one side. But on the other side, there was a group of men whose ideology was not very clearly defined. At best, Al Qaeda was a cult. Not a single state sided with the Bin Laden-Zawahiri combine. How did this face off match the Cold War?
Let’s not forget that the western world did not declare war on the Islamic world or even a part of it. Within days of the event, the American president was clarifying to whomever was willing to listen that the West was not at war with Islam or Muslims.
More so, within a year of the invasion of Afghanistan, there was not even a western coalition that agreed on a common basic agenda, leave alone on their enemy. The so called coalition of the willing that led the war in Iraq was the butt of many jokes and hardly anyone remembers any country other than the United States and United Kingdom that went in.
These were the only two wars that stemmed from 9/11 but one had few links with Al Qaeda. Soon after removing Saddam Hussain in Iraq, it was clear that he or his regime had no links to Al Qaeda; Washington’s intelligence saying so was incorrect.( The second war will be addressed a little later.)
In contrast, the Cold War led to wars as varied as Afghanistan, Korea and Vietnam to name just a few. Each of them lasted as long as a decade and created regional and international dynamics. For instance, the war in Vietnam affected the region (as has the war in Afghanistan) but even after the Americans withdrew, they remained concerned about the appeal of communism in South East Asia. As a result, Washington took a special interest in South East Asia and its economic development; the trade concessions it offered led to the East Asian tigers and their miracle growth remained a major debate in economic development till after the Cold War.
Similarly, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan led to a proxy war in the country and also prompted the US to set up the international jihad factory. Not only were terrorist camps set up, but also the international financial links to feed this production line. In addition, ties were nurtured that allowed men from all over the world to head to Afghanistan and Pakistan to get training. This international jihad factory continues to operate till now. At the time this plan was hatched it was so grand that it was fed by and on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as well as the Indo-Pak tensions.
In contrast, neither of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq had any significant regional implications, leave alone international ones.
Take Iraq. Unlike the neo con predictions that democracy in Iraq would lead to other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East collapsing, nothing happened. And the Arab spring when it finally happened was triggered by a number of events and issues but none of them was linked to the US invasion of Iraq.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, has led to mayhem and war in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But beyond this, the American intervention has changed little. Despite a ten year involvement, Afghanistan’s state and society is no different from what it was a decade ago. The massive aid inflow has achieved little and now that Washington is negotiating with the Taliban, there are chances that the very Pashtuns that Washington went into Afghanistan to throw out of power will make a comeback. The grand plan to change or develop Afghanistan has been abandoned and replaced by the achievable goal of eliminating Al Qaeda — a rag tag force of misfits at best.
And then there is Pakistan. A decade ago, it faced an economic crisis and was considering implementing reforms including a value added tax as the first step to expand its tax base. It was isolated in the world and its military dictatorship was under pressure. Any of it sound familiar?
Nine-eleven gave the Pakistan of 2001 an artificial breath of life. Money flew in and the state was able to delay swallowing the bitter economic pill it is now being forced to ingest. General Musharraf was allowed to strut around the world stage and Pakistan for much longer than he deserved. But now the country is back at the political and economic cross roads it faced in 2001; we are grappling with the same political and economic reforms package plus debating what the country should do to its jihad factory; its army and its relation with India.
In other words, Pakistan just got a ten year breather to ignore all of its problems.
Nonetheless, some may argue that it is in the Pak-Afghan-India backyard that 9/11 had an impact and where its blowback will continue to be felt.
But this is all that 9/11 was about — Pakistan and Afghanistan.
We need to understand that what happened on 9/11 was a result of the Cold War rivalry that led to the proxy war in Afghanistan in the 80s. The jihad factory that was set up then continued after the Cold War ended and led to 9/11. And since then, the US and its allied are trying to dismantle what they set up earlier.
Indeed 9/11 was not the beginning of a new world conflict or a new era in world politics but simply the last remnants of the Cold War.
Outside of this region, 9/11 will perhaps only be remembered for the blow it dealt to the declining power of the United States. Super powers, after all, come and go. The Second World War gave the world the United States as a world power; the Cold War brought the end to its only rival, leaving behind a uni-polar world or the age of the hyper power.
But this too had to end. And the beginning of its end started the day the planes rammed into the World Trade Centre. Hubris or imperial overstretch then led the US into two wars which coupled with the country’s economic mismanagement may finally lead to a new and different era with new super powers.
Not a bad achievement for a cult led by a Saudi misfit. This much a bunch of men can perhaps achieve but to spark off a world conflict? Not really. We should remember that as we commemorate 9/11.
Arifa Noor is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.