Ten years later

TEN years ago to the day, the world experienced in real time a spectacular act of violence committed by a new, elusive force, non-state actors, driven by rage and for an ill-defined purpose.

There has been greater carnage in the past, but the experience and the horror that gripped the world that day has undeniably become a defining moment for the new century that has transformed world affairs with far-reaching consequences which are not yet fully apparent.

Certain trends are visible but without a clear trajectory of development towards a future which is also being shaped by powerful forces of globalisation and information and technological revolutions. However, there is clarity on who have been the worst losers.

The world is a safer but more nervous place. The end of the Cold War removed the danger of global conflagration; the post 9/11 focus on security, building extensive surveillance and intelligence networks and developing and deploying incredible new technologies have largely secured most countries from a repetition of 9/11 by individuals or groups. But 9/11 has been etched in the psyche of developed societies making them nervous and edgy in a world deluged by instant information. The pervasive electronic media has turned ‘war on terror’ into a permanent war that lives in minds as much as on some battlefronts and feeds individual and collective anxiety and fears.

The aftermath of 9/11 has empowered the US/Nato military and intelligence establishment while at the same time revealed the limitations of military power. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nato/US military establishment was groping for an objective; 9/11 ended the search and provided justification for a new role and expansion. It also provided new iconic symbols characteristic of a call to arms and patriotic sentiment.

The last decade has seen the shaping of a one-million strong US Homeland Security and similarly large counterparts in Nato and many non-Nato countries, vast counterterrorism industries including the latest drone technologies for proxy warfare and a boost in the military’s prestige and role which even pacifists in these countries avoid questioning. The current US debates on deficit reduction skirt scrutiny of massive military budgets, which have strengthened the role of the military and CIA in foreign policy.

Paradoxically, however, post-9/11 Nato and US military interventions in Afghanistan and then Iraq have exposed the limitations of even the sole military superpower of the day. It is moot that the ambitious and unjustified US misadventure in Iraq undermined the chances of success in Afghanistan, but surely, the two military interventions proved to be an unaffordable overstretch.

The lingering conflicts compelled the US to trim objectives on both fronts. The neoconservative agenda to redesign the Middle East lies in shambles. Having decided to scale down the US military presence, American leadership now concedes that there are no military solutions to the complex problems of Afghanistan, and that “the burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone”. 9/11 has nudged the world closer to multi-polarity.

The electronic media has emerged both as a vehicle for integration and understanding and as an enforcer of prejudice and suspicion. The information age is not altogether benign. As the ideologically underpinned bipolar world disappeared, new
cultural tectonics started surfacing. 9/11 and the powerful media have infused an adversarial content in these differences.

Early voices linking 9/11 to the anger and frustration in Muslim societies over festering political disputes, in particular Palestine, were soon drowned by the narrative promoted by protagonists in the West of a clash of values and systems, between those who espoused freedom and democracy and those with authoritarian anti-democratic dispositions. The Arab Spring may have belied this false premise but the campaign has seared prejudice against Muslims in the consciousness of the West.

This trend is not a one-way street; it is more than matched by rising anti-American and anti-West sentiment across the Muslim world fed by a similar rhetoric. Cyberspace is replete with freewheeling blogs and websites that spew senseless hatred without any accountability. It is difficult to predict the unrestrained relentless dynamic of this phenomenon.

Who are the losers? Many in the West bemoan the loss of freedoms, ease of mind and the compromise on individual human rights and, on a different plane, attribute the economic downturn to the Iraq and the Afghan wars. But the US, regardless of huge costs, has been successful in dealing with the 9/11 challenge. The world has rallied to defeat Al Qaeda and its violent creed.

Muslim countries have suffered much with little gain. Much of the trouble in these countries owes to their failure, in varying degrees, to develop stable political systems ensuring popular participation and to meet the contemporary demands of socio-economic development. These inherent weaknesses proved devastating for those countries that were susceptible to the Al Qaeda ideology and influences. Al Qaeda violence largely targeted Muslims and the 9/11 aftermath has compounded misfortunes of many Muslim societies, including Muslim migrant communities.

Meanwhile, the longstanding problems which gnaw at their psyche and spawn angry impulses are far from being resolved; many countries have been disoriented by the experience. Saudi Arabia, once bruited as the third superpower for its petrodollars, is shaky and faces an uncertain future. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia remain in the grip of conflict.

With the US intervention next door and hit by Al Qaeda and an extremist backlash aimed at destabilising the country, Pakistan has been caught in a spiral of violence since 9/11. Pakistan could not have escaped the fallout of 9/11. Pakistan did not have the choice to insulate itself or sidestep the global response to 9/11, given the homegrown extremism and militancy which had joined hands with Al Qaeda remnants.

For Pakistani society, the crisis is deep because of confusion over the nature of the challenge it faces and over recognition that extremism, religious militancy and autonomous armed groups cannot coexist with its struggle to regain political and economic equilibrium and its aspirations for development and progress.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity.