It has been nine years since the 11 September attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York that left nearly 3,000 people dead. It was the trigger for an incredible transformation—a process that still seems to be a work in progress; something even the terrorists who masterminded the spectacular attack using commercial aircraft could not have imagined—beginning with a massive military offensive, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, led by the US.
But a year ahead of the 10th anniversary of the attacks next year, the situation, it seems, has come full circle. While this does not mean status quo, it has caused the emergence of new state of disequilibrium undesirable for a host of reasons.
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For one, controversially at that, the attack was a hugely successful effort from the point of view of the terrorists. They grabbed attention for their cause, unjust or otherwise, in a dramatic manner and also raised the bar, as it were, for copycats (such as those who so brazenly unleashed the 26/11 mayhem in Mumbai in 2008).
Second, it demonstrated to the US in particular and the world in general that every country was vulnerable to terrorist attacks—some more so than others.
Thirdly, it showed up the follies of American foreign policy that revolves around a one-size-fits-all strategy and one that lacks flexibility; particularly exposing the fact that a superior military force is not sufficient to curb terror—something that is painfully apparent as the US withdraws from Iraq, having committed to also pull out of Afghanistan.
Finally, together with the global economic crisis that originated in the US, it accelerated the change in global polity that had been under way from the previous decade following the emphatic economic emergence of China.
It is not that the American hegemony has been completely set aside; instead, it is that the world has become a far more democratic place as the relative decline of the Western powers has coincided with the emergence of developing economies such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa.
The sum total of these factors is that the US has failed in its self-defined role as the global sheriff. Now, a slew of intellectuals in the West are voicing the view that the onus is on countries such as India and China to pick up the slack. While the latter has flatly declined to be involved in any policing or stabilization efforts and continues to play to achieve its own material ends in conflict situations, India does not have the capacity.
A further point of concern is that terrorism is nowhere close to being exterminated. If anything, terrorist forces have gathered fresh wind, having found a fertile haven in dysfunctional Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
From India’s point of view, it is a disaster because this ascendancy comes at a time when the country would rather have focused on fostering its economic emergence than being distracted by the perennial fear of suffering a fresh terrorist attack.
These adverse developments are ironic for India, as almost exactly a year preceding the attack in New York, the government had gone public with its warnings about terror networks spawned from within Pakistan.
Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 cautioned the world against ignoring India’s repeated warnings and calls for action against terrorists/terror networks fostered from within Pakistan, arguing that it was potentially harmful to other countries too.
And this was not a random observation, but based on an assessment by the then foreign policy establishment. I recall that Brajesh Mishra, the national security adviser at the time, responding to a query from a colleague, identified the Taliban as the biggest threat facing India—this was in early 2000 when the anarchist doings (including terrorizing a nation in the name of religion and the unprovoked destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues) of this grouping in Afghanistan were largely ignored.
As things stand, it may well be that by the time the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks comes around, some elements of the Taliban (with the seemingly innocuous nomenclature of “good” Taliban) may be part of the ruling establishment in Aghanistan. This was the same political grouping that had been outlawed for its association with Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda.
What is more worrying is that the terrorists are also winning the battle for the political mindspace. Not only has their message gained a dangerous legitimacy following the failure of the allied doctrine over the last decade, the right-wing opposition of the kind that threatened to burn the Koran to mark the anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday (the plan was eventually called off) has also become more bellicose. For the terrorists, this is perfect fodder to stoke more collective hatred, portray themselves as victims and provide a communal spin to their cause.
The simple fact is that the battle is—and has always been—political. You know politicians are completely off the message (till after a pastor threatened to burn a holy book) when people protesting the construction of a mosque near the World Trade Center hold up posters saying: “Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories.”
Two years after his historic election, it is evident that the time has come for President Barack Obama to walk the talk: Yes, we can!
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com