Emeritus Professor Richard Bonney
The coordinated attack using passenger aircraft as lethal weapons of destruction was an unprecedented crime against humanity which traumatized the United States and also the western world and the population of most Muslim-majority countries. It was deliberately precipitated by Usama bin Ladin and his co-conspirators in an attempt to precipitate a clash between the West and the Islamic world (‘clash of civilizations’) that would be favourable to al-Qaeda’s ambitions. The Western intervention in Afghanistan adopted the wrong strategy at the outset but was an understandable reaction: no President of the United States could have left the attack unanswered. What is regrettable is that President George W. Bush and his principal advisers – notably Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld – were excessively preoccupied with using the 9/11 attacks as a justification for what came to be termed ‘regime change’ against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In reality, Saddam had no links with al-Qaeda and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were unrelated. This meant that in the long term the war in Iraq diverted vital resources in manpower and money away from Afghanistan and ensured that the war in Afghanistan would become a long and apparently unwinnable struggle.
How has it changed Afghanistan?
Had the Taliban government been prepared to surrender the al-Qaeda leadership in 2001 (and the Kandahar shura was divided on the issue and came close to doing so) an enormous amount of destruction and loss of life would have been prevented. There would still have been a problem for the West in knowing how to deal with the Taliban regime, which had close to pariah state status and was only recognized by three states (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). But it would at least have been able to separate out the distinctive issues of the pursuit of al-Qaeda – which had perpetrated the atrocities of 9/11 – and the Taliban, who had given them sanctuary but not attacked targets in the West. Targetting both al-Qaeda and the Taliban simultaneously meant that the West made the crucial error of siding with the minority Northern Alliance and thereafter alienating the Pashtun majority. These early errors were compounded by having insufficient western troops on the ground and backing a corrupt and ineffective government headed by Hamid Karzai, who was called by bin Ladin ‘the mayor of Kabul’, thereby implying that he was a western stooge.
Here the effect has been huge. Before 9/11 Pakistan had almost no problem with domestic terrorism. It was a fairly safe country for the westerner to move around in and there seemed reasonable hope that it could develop rapidly both economically and politically. The effect of the war in Afghanistan has been to create a significant insurgency within Pakistan itself, which is largely Pashtun-based and has some links to the Pashtun-based Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Immediately after 9/11, the US forced the Musharraf regime to reverse its foreign policy with regard to Afghanistan; but this has been unsustainable in the longer term. Once the US declared its wish to reduce its military commitment in Afghanistan drastically by 2014, Pakistan has increasingly had to plan for a future when it is once more on its own in dealing with its regional neighbours. And – hugely significant, but largely unreported in the West – President Obama’s escalation of Bush’s policy of drone attacks has done enormous harm to the US-Pakistan relationship. This has policy has become an ‘own goal’ for the US in the war on terror. On this, see the detailed arguments elsewhere in my blog.
Iraq’s infrastructure was seriously damaged by the allied invasion in 2003. This was an indirect consequence of 9/11, because George W. Bush was mistakenly convinced that Saddam Hussein ‘had to have been’ involved in those events. Another consequence has been the heightened sectarianism in Iraq and the involvement of Iran in its internal affairs. It remains to be seen whether a unified and stable Iraq can emerge from the mess of the war: once the tensions between Shia and Sunni have come out into the open, they are very difficult to remedy within a unified state.
The Middle East?
There have been significant al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda linked threats to Saudi Arabia (which were overcome), Yemen and Somalia (which have not been resolved). The political upheaval in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria is completely unrelated to al-Qaeda, however, which demonstrates how little impact – perhaps surprisingly – the events of 9/11 have had on the Middle East, which is proceeding at its own pace of development on internal issues.
This is an extract from Professor Bonney’s South Asian Security blog and is reproduced with kind permission. You can read the full post at his site or visit his website http://richardbonney.co.uk/ for more information.
Richard Bonney was Professor of Modern History at the University of Leicester for 22 years between 1984 and 2006 and has worked for more than fifteen years in Leicester towards enhancing religious and cultural harmony while respecting diversity.