9/11 and all that
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 today, much introspection is taking place on the meaning and impact of that seminal event. Despite successes against al Qaeda, in particular the degrading of its terrorist capabilities by taking out Osama bin Laden (OBL) and many of the top leaders of the organisation, cautionary voices can be heard arguing that the struggle against terrorism is far from over and there is little room for complacency. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to a credible, new, but still unconfirmed threat to the US on the eve of the anniversary. Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair too chimed in with the statement that the post-9/11 battle was not over. Some context needs to be recalled.
The decade 1991-2011 could be looked back at with the benefit of hindsight as arguably providing the momentum that led to 9/11 in the midst of historic changes and developments. The first Iraq war of 1990-91 saw foreign, particularly US forces, deployed for the first time on Saudi soil. This event is widely believed to have alienated OBL from his home country and its monarchy, and impelled him to seek ways and means to combat American worldwide hegemony. This project led him from Sudan back to his original battlefield against the Soviets, i.e. Afghanistan, now ruled by the Taliban. From his base there, OBL stands accused of planning 9/11. The American response in the shape of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq crippled the neo-con American century project, in the process eroding due process and civil liberties at home and abroad, the latter witnessing the recourse to rendition and torture of suspects. However, whatever success or lack of it attended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they had the unintended consequence of spreading the al Qaeda franchise further abroad, increasing the threat of the terror network beyond its original support base. Western interventionism found a new lease of life (which continues), while the checks and balance provided in world affairs by the USSR-led communist camp during the cold war ended with a whimper when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. The assassination of redoubtable Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan just two days before 9/11 has been considered by many as the prelude to and preliminary strike by al Qaeda in preparation for the 9/11 attacks. The purpose perhaps was to ensure the strengthening of al Qaeda’s hosts, the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan.
While there is little quarrel with the assertion that 9/11 changed the world almost beyond recognition, it is perhaps too early to grasp all the ramifications of that change. After all, if the cautionary voices mentioned above are correct, and there is weighty evidence that they are, the struggle against the ideology that al Qaeda represents is continuing, even while it spawns affiliates and draws to its banner a diverse array of religious extremists worldwide. Of all the countries most affected by 9/11 and its aftermath, in order of destruction, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan probably enjoy pride of place. We in particular have been hoist by our own petard, our support to the export of jihadi extremism having returned to haunt us with a vengeance. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are seeing an incremental drawdown and withdrawal of foreign troops, the problems they leave behind will not so easily go away. In particular, Afghanistan’s endgame is poised delicately at the cusp of a possible return to the corridors of power, albeit partial, in Kabul of the Taliban. This spells risks not only for the Afghan people, but also for Pakistan’s security if the nexus of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban strengthens the latter’s ability to operate from Afghan soil against Pakistan’s security. Ironically, our military establishment’s quest for that will-o-the-wisp, ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, may end up in the strategic pit of increased threats to Pakistan’s own security.