Updated: September 13, 2021 8:48:07 am
Did the breathtaking terror attack on New York and Washington on the crisp autumn morning of September 11, 2001, change the course of world politics? Or was it a spectacular but minor episode? Twenty years later, 9/11 looks a lot less epochal than it seemed in the heat of the moment.
One major inference in the wake of 9/11 was about the power of non-state actors — demonstrated by al Qaeda’s massive surprise attack on the world’s lone superpower at its zenith. Al Qaeda’s rise seemed to fit in with the age of economic globalisation and the internet, which heralded the weakening of the state system and the arrival of a borderless world.
Two decades later, though, the system of nation-states looks quite robust after enduring the challenge from international terrorism. And the ambition of the jihadists — who organised the 9/11 attacks, to destroy America, overthrow the Arab regimes, unleash a war with Israel, and pit the believers against the infidels — remains elusive as ever.
To be sure, terrorist organisations and the religious extremism that inspires them continue to be of concern. But sectarian schisms, ideological cleavages, internecine warfare, and the messiness of the real world have cooled the revolutionary ardour that the world was so afraid of after 9/11. Like Communism and many other millenarian movements before it, the violent Islamist wave has run against impossible odds.
In the battle between states and non-states, the former have accumulated extraordinary powers in the name of fighting the latter. All nations, including liberal democracies, have curtailed individual liberty by offering greater security against terrorism. Abuse of state power has inevitably followed.
The state system adapted quickly to the disruptions created by 9/11. There was much anxiety about terror groups gaining access to weapons of mass destruction or leveraging new digital technologies to increase their power over states. The state system has succeeded in keeping nuclear weapons and material away from terrorists. It has also become adept at using digital tools to counter extremism. States passed sweeping laws that permit relentless tracking of the growing digital footprints of citizens in the information age.
If 9/11 made air travel risky, the states quickly developed protocols to de-risk it. Until the Covid-19 virus threatened it, air transport in the post-9/11 world grew rapidly and boosted the global markets for travel and tourism. The trans-national nature of the new terror groups was countered by better border controls and greater international cooperation on law enforcement.
The choice of targets in the 9/11 attacks — the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — was not accidental. They were designed to strike at the very heart of American capitalism and its famed military power. Marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 days after the humiliating US retreat from Kabul and domestic turmoil might suggest that al Qaeda and its associates did succeed in ending America’s unipolar moment.
But a closer look suggests that the US was humbled less by al Qaeda and the Taliban than by Washington’s own follies. American capitalism met its greatest threat not in 2001 but in the 2008 financial crisis that was triggered by the reckless ideology of deregulation. America lost in Afghanistan and the Middle East because it over-determined the terror threat and put security approaches above political common sense.
American ideologues used the 9/11 moment to pursue all kinds of fetishes — hunting for nuclear weapons that did not exist in Iraq, promoting democracy in the Middle East, and pursuing disastrous regime changes in the region. After 9/11, President George W Bush turned his attention to confronting an imagined “global axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq and North Korea. None of the three countries was involved in 9/11. And the US rewarded Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and economic assistance that actively nurtured the Taliban and succeeded in bleeding and defeating the US in Afghanistan.
The Middle East crusades cost America enormous blood and treasure. They took valuable resources away from America’s own internal needs. They also blinded the US to an emerging challenger — China — on the horizon. Washington’s obsession with the Middle East gave Beijing two valuable decades to consolidate its rise without any hindrance.
Although America’s unipolar moment may have ended, the US will continue to remain the most powerful nation in the world, with the greatest capacity to shape the international system. America’s size, capabilities and the resilience to reinvent itself have given the US vast margins for error. The US is well set to pick up the pieces and move on from 9/11.
What about the jihadist agenda for the Middle East? The Islamist effort to destroy the Gulf kingdoms spluttered quite quickly as the Arab monarchs cracked down hard on the jihadi groups. Many Arab states do not see al Qaeda and its offshoots as existential threats. They worry more about other Muslim states like Turkey, Qatar and Iran that seek to leverage Islam for geopolitical purposes. These fears have pushed smaller Gulf kingdoms towards Israel and shattered the jihadi hope to trigger the final Islamic assault on the Jewish state.
Developments in China and Pakistan reinforce the proposition that politics among nation-states is more significant than the power of the transcendental religious forces.
China has embarked on a bold mission to “Sinicise” Islam as part of a grand design to subordinate religion to Xi Jinping’s thought. Beijing justifies its crackdown on the Muslims of the Xinjiang province by citing the terror threat. Few states in the Islamic world have raised their voice against Beijing; for they see cooperation with the powerful Chinese state as more important than religious solidarity with Xinjiang Muslims.
In the subcontinent, as elsewhere, violent religious extremism thrives only under state patronage. The answers to the challenges presented by the return of the Taliban and the likely resurgence of jihadi terrorism are not in the religious domain but in changing the geopolitical calculus of Pakistan’s deep state.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 11, 2021 under the title ‘The triumph of nation-state’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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