Reflections on the tenth anniversary of 9/11

Emeritus Professor Richard Bonney

Professor Richard BonneyThe 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 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.


  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 07/09/2011 at 22:39 | Permalink

    I was taught in school that a single terrorist act was the cause of the First World War. That was no more true than saying that 9/11 was the cause of the war against Iraq. Terrible events create opportunities that politicians will exploit for their own motives. 9/11was the third attack on the WTC, the murderers put enormous time and effort to ensure the third time was successful. They did not do it on a whim. Was it pay back or did they want to provoke America into a war against Islam. Was it calculated? Was it insane? Why America?

    The U.S. supports the Saudi Arabia and Yemen dictatorships. The murders came from these countries. Without U.S. support Israel could not continue it’s present policies against the Palestinians. It is only a step from there to consider my enemy’s friend is my enemy.


  2. Aaron V
    Posted 06/09/2011 at 20:20 | Permalink

    I don’t agree. America wouldn’t have been attacked on 9/11 had a bunch or murderers not flown into the world trade centre. To argue US policy somehow asked for it is a peculiar view of what happened.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    9/11 was the third attempt. Why do you think this bunch of murders went to so much effort? To say that actions have consequences is not the same as saying some one asked for it.

    The U.S. Government did not agree with you. The bunch of murderers were dead so if there was no cause other than they were psychopaths why attack a country that had no connection with them whatsoever whilst ignoring their countries of origin; Saudi Arabia and Yemen. You may think that the emotions that drove the murders were just crazy but was the response to their actions any more sane.

    It is often claimed (I was taught it in school) that the First World War was started by an act of terrorism by an anarchist but that was no more true than saying the U.S. attacked Iraq because on 9/11. Terrible events open opportunities but that does not pre suppose a causal relationship. So what was the causal relationship.? Why did this bunch of crazies not attack Switzerland? Give us your analysis.


    Richard Hagan Reply:

    The U.S. Government did not agree with you. Despite the fact that that the murders were dead they declared war on a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with them. The murders were from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Britain did not declare war on America because it did nothing to stop its citizens from funding terrorism in Britain fo 30 years.

    America insisted there was a cause and I agree. Why did these crazies not attack Switzerland? Even crazies have reasons. Why do you think these bunch of murders spent so much time and effort? Give us your analysis of why they tried 3 times to destroy the World Trade Centre.


  3. Richard Hagan
    Posted 04/09/2011 at 09:03 | Permalink

    It is doubtful that the USA would have been attacked on 9/11 had it not supported Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people. I don’t remember President Bush stating that Iraq supported al-Qaeda. He spoke of the danger of Saddam Hussain and let the American people draw their own conclusions. Almost 3000 people died in the 9/11 attack, more than 65,000 Iraqis died in the response. Hardly a proportionate response.

    In the first special forces attack on Afghanistan the Taliban were worsted to the extent that they were prepared to talk to the USA. The Americans refused, giving them time to regroup, and now the resistance fighters (not all of whom are Taliban) hold down half the American Army. Pretty impressive.

    As you indicated, Pakistan had gained some influence over it’s unstable neighbour which was damaged by the U.S.A., forcing a readjustment that has not been positive internally or externally.

    What effect has all this had on the middle east? It is hard to believe it has not had some impact. If you see people fighting for freedom in Afghanistan and holding of the most powerful country in the world then maybe that gives you the courage to try to dispose of your own tyrant.

    What of the future. Unless and until the U.S.A modifies it’s policy in relation to Israel and Palestine and learns to gather real intelligence then it will remain at risk of similar attacks. Only by building relationships with the people as a whole rather than with individuals will it succeed.


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