From that day on — a day referred to simply as 9/11 — the world has changed for the worse. As details emerged about the attack on the Pentagon, as well as of another hijacked aircraft that was forced down by passengers, it became clear that we were witnessing the most horrendous single terrorist attack in history.
Any attempt to take stock of post-9/11 events runs the risk of bias: the atrocity provokes so much emotional response that it is hard to view them objectively. I remember all too well the conspiracy theories that flashed around the world on the Internet even before the bodies of the victims had been pulled out of the debris. Many of them are still with us.
Just the other day, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad stated that he wasn’t sure who was behind 9/11. Considering that Osama bin Laden has claimed credit for the attacks, it strikes me as odd that people who should know better are still pushing conspiracy theories long after details of the plot have been made public.
So here we are, nine years into the ‘war on terror’. After hundreds of billions of dollars spent and well over 100,000 dead, was it all worth it? Clearly, Islamic militancy is stronger today than it was in 2001. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have served to energise militants and radicalise a whole generation of young Muslims. Above all, US policies after 9/11 have turned much of the Islamic world against Washington.
True, there have been no major terrorist attacks on American soil over the last nine years. But was the cost worth the slightly enhanced security? In a few cases, it was the incompetence of the terrorists that saved lives, not the efforts of American intelligence agencies.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Al Qaeda had limited resources, and is incapable of launching another attack on the scale of 9/11. What has happened since is that many extremist groups have tacked on the Al Qaeda label due to its leader’s appeal to radicals. In one sense, it is the American-led response to 9/11 that has served to increase the threat.
While other nations have faced sporadic threats and attacks, we in Pakistan have borne the brunt of jihadi terrorism. This is not to suggest — as many do — that this violence is a post-9/11 phenomenon.
We were victims of militancy earlier as jihadi groups, nurtured by our military establishment to further its agenda in Kashmir and Afghanistan broke out of control and committed mayhem. However, there is a quantum increase in the level of violence, with militant groups unleashing a vicious series of strikes against innocent men, women and children across Pakistan.
So was there anything we could have done differently to avert the fallout from 9/11? Musharraf has been heavily criticised for falling in line with Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ ultimatum. But in truth, he had very few options. The Americans were going to launch an attack on Afghanistan after Mullah Omar refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, and their jet fighters and missiles, launched from the fleet in the Arabian Sea, would have flown over our territory whether we liked it or not.
Obviously, we simply do not have the capability to withstand the might of the American military machine. To put things in context, American spending on defence is almost equal to that of the rest of the world put together.
Given this military imbalance, it was clearly prudent not to resist American demands for cooperation, whatever the ghairat brigade says. There is a limit on the price we should place on national honour. Others say Musharraf should have held out for more US aid, but this is just quibbling: militants would not have halted their onslaught us just because we had gouged some more money out of Washington.
Once we were allied to the Americans — albeit with major reservations and secret caveats — we were engaged in a battle we fought only half-heartedly for the first six years or so, allowing militants to re-arm and organise on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
With the war going badly, many Americans are now questioning whether this effort is worth the blood and treasure they have sunk into the enterprise. Initially, the war was waged to unseat the Taliban. But once this goal was swiftly achieved, the Americans got involved in creating a post-Taliban Afghanistan that would not be a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism that could threaten America and its overseas interests.
This expanded agenda has sucked the US into a quagmire. The reality is that Afghanistan was never a cohesive state where Kabul’s writ ran across the whole country. Cobbling together a viable modern state is something that is clearly beyond the capability of the United States. As this realisation sinks in, policymakers in Washington are trying to fashion a face-saving exit strategy that does not simply open the door for the Taliban to return to Kabul in triumph. Even this limited goal is proving beyond American means.
What happens when the Americans do pull out? Clearly, this retreat would be a disaster for the region. The Taliban will almost certainly help their cousins in Pakistan. The defeat of the world’s only superpower will greatly enhance their appeal and their influence. Jihadis from across the Muslim world will flock there, with major destabilising effects for Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Hiding in his cave, even Osama bin Laden must be surprised at the far-reaching effects of his attack on the United States nine years ago. He could scarcely have imagined that his enemy would have been so traumatised, and forced into two wars, endless expense and a curtailment of the rights of its citizens. But if there are any winners in this war without end, it is clearly Osama bin Laden.