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Opinion: Why 9/11 is so important 20 years on


Emeritus Prof Paul Rogers

9/11 was just part of a wider shift in global power, argues Emeritus Professor Paul Rogers


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Here, University of Bradford Emeritus Prof Paul Rogers, author of the recently republished bestseller Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century, says the West still needs to learn the lessons of the past and change its thinking on global security. 

The 9/11 attacks were certainly visceral in their impact. It was worse than Pearl Harbour, because it was sudden, in the city and it was the TV age. 

While it is correct to say it represents a major turning point in history, it’s also true that countries around the world were becoming more vulnerable to paramilitary attacks even before that. For example, there had been an attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre in 1993, when a paramilitary group tried to blow out the foundations of the north tower. 

The US was already changing its military posture because of this but 9/11 still came as one hell of a shock to them, and the world. 

The reaction to 9/11 in terms of foreign policy has been a disaster. Four failed wars, in Iraq (twice: 2003-11 and the war against ISIS from 2014-18), Libya and Afghanistan, have shown that. There were people who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, argued there was an alternative to becoming involved in protracted wars and that was to treat Al-Qaeda as an appalling transnational criminal group and to then work with other countries to bring those people to justice, but their voices did not count. 

One problem with responding with great forces is that, while that might be acceptable in the West, at least in the short term, there is a lack of consensus from other countries around the world, many of which see a few countries intent on maintaining control, even when many civilians get killed. 

We are moving into an era where the weak can take up arms against the strong. When coupled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, both of which are damaging economically, this will only lead to more bitter people on the margins of society. 

This requires a re-think in terms of our approach to global security. President Biden agreed with President Trump that the war in Afghanistan could not be won, and he took the (correct) decision to end it. How it ended is another matter entirely and was little short of disastrous. There could have been a careful, planned and phased withdrawal, with external oversight, preferably from an independent UN stabilisation force. 

Marginalised societies 

The West’s instinct in dealing with terrorism is still primarily militaristic. So, while we will no longer see tens of thousands of boots on the ground - and the inevitable body bags returning home - we are now likely to see an increase in remote warfare, with the use of air power, armed drones and special forces. 

The 9/11 attacks did not change the world, they were further steps along a well-signed path leading to two decades of conflict and four failed wars so far and no clear end in sight. 

That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we must recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition, a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins. 

In writing Losing Control in the late 1990s, a couple of years before 9/11, I put it this way:  

What should be expected is that new social movements will develop that are essentially anti-elite in nature and will draw their support from people, especially men, on the margins. In different contexts and circumstances, they may have their roots in political ideologies, religious beliefs, ethnic, nationalist or cultural identities, or a complex combination of several of these. They may be focused on individuals or groups, but the most common feature is an opposition to existing centres of power…. What can be said is that, on present trends, anti-elite action will be a core feature of the next 30 years – not so much a clash of civilisations, more an age of insurgencies.  

More than two decades down the road, socio-economic divisions have worsened, the concentration of wealth has reached levels best described as obscene and has even increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, itself leading to food shortages and increased poverty. 

Meanwhile climate change is now with us, accelerating towards climate breakdown with, once again, the greatest impact on marginalised societies. It therefore makes sense to see 9/11 primarily as an early and grievous manifestation of the weak taking up arms against the strong, and that military responses in the current global security environment woefully miss the point. At the very least there is an urgent need to rethink what we mean by security, and time is getting short to do that.  

On China 

Anyone who thinks the Taliban are isolated is mistaken. There is a strategic border between Afghanistan and China, a high mountain pass inaccessible for much of the year but it would not be beyond China’s capabilities to create a viable link between the two countries. 

China wants to deal with the Taliban. There is a quid-pro-quo here, in that China wants help in dealing with the Uyghur Muslims, and Afghanistan also has vast mineral wealth, including cobalt, rare earth metals and other minerals needed for modern communications. They would aim to develop such resources and the Taliban would benefit from any trade links. 

In addition, Pakistan is already fairly close to the Taliban, and Russia will not be opposed to them in the way people might think. In any case, China is the coming power. Within a decade or so it may even overtake the US as the most powerful economic entity in the world. While Russia likes to see itself as a great power, and is certainly nuclear-armed, in reality it has the same GDP as Britain. China is in an altogether different place, it really does have the capability.

Read Prof Rogers' latest article in The Conversation.