ECONOMY

Twenty years since 9/11 — a personal story

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I wouldn’t normally extract a private tale from an epic geopolitical one. But my career in the past two decades has intersected so often with the discordant world that arose from September 11 that I thought there would be value in sharing some vignettes. Let me start with a confession. On the morning of September 11 it was evening in New Delhi, where I had arrived a couple of months earlier as the FT’s bureau chief. As I was finishing dinner with a French journalist in one of the city’s hotels, a waiter beseeched us to come and watch the television showing a plane flying into a New York building. Thinking he was referring to some movie, we waved him off. I awoke the next morning to the ghastly reality of what the waiter had been trying to show us. Such were my journalistic instincts . . . 

A few hours later I was on the plane to the Pakistani city of Islamabad. I didn’t return to Delhi for months. Later that same day, September 12, my Pakistani colleague, Farhan Bokhari, and I found ourselves in the Rawalpindi home of Hamid Gul, former head of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, who confidently informed us that Osama bin Laden was being framed for the attack on the Twin Towers. It had in fact been a Mossad operation, he said. Among Gul’s bogus bits of evidence was that none of the hundreds of Jewish people who worked at the Twin Towers had turned up for work that morning. Even now, it is hard to believe that he said that on the record to a western publication. It was my first of many bleak tutorials in the world view of the ISI. Sadly, I believe we are destined to witness a few more. The Taliban, as most Swampians will know, is largely an ISI creation. There is no way the Afghan Islamist group would have retaken power in Kabul this week — or for the first time in 1996 — without Pakistan’s sponsorship and connivance. The late Hamid Gul, incidentally, was known as the godfather of the Taliban.

In addition to the horror of it all, I felt a selfish irritation over September 11’s impact on my planned itinerary. I was in New Delhi largely to cover a rising India, which I believed was a vitally important story to the future of the world. I looked forward to the most satisfying form of journalism — reporting on trends that were not getting the coverage they deserve. The air is freshest where there is no media pack chasing the same story. Instead, I found myself in the Marriott Islamabad with hundreds of other journalists. Then we decamped en masse to the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, then to the Serena Hotel in Quetta, and so on, as the US-led bombing of Afghanistan unfolded. Alas, I was never to meet my closest competitor, The Wall Street Journal’s south Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl. As no one reading this note is likely to have forgotten, Pearl was kidnapped by the terrorist group led by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born Pakistani terrorist, and executed in a gruesome video that presaged the slickly packaged Isis beheadings in Syria several years later. Sheikh said that Pearl was a Mossad agent.

Even without Pearl’s horrific murder, Pakistan was an uncomfortable place to be. Venturing into a madrassa, or a mosque, always felt like a gamble. Trying to get a straight answer out of Pakistani officials was mostly fruitless. By contrast, Kabul in the wake of the Taliban’s rout by the US-allied Northern Alliance, offered a brief freewheeling vista. It was even possible to feel optimistic about the country’s future. Women were venturing back out in public — in many cases free of the burka. Music was playing again. Beards were coming off. Multicoloured kites festooned the skies. How dated and superficial those impressions now seem.

When I moved back to Washington in 2006, it was to a city bitterly divided over the Iraq war, which had descended into sectarian and insurgency hell. By the end of the year, Saddam Hussein was dead but bin Laden was still nowhere to be found. Afghanistan was very much yesterday’s war. People mostly bought into the line that the good guys had prevailed and the country was emerging from the dark ages. I won’t reprise the twists and turns in the US-Afghan odyssey since then. My column this week — Afghanistan and the tragedy of post-9/11 America — offers a summary of that story. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which I covered fairly intensively, failed to live up to its post war-on-terror promise once he came to office. 

Let me make two larger observations. First, September 11 warped American culture. I had lived in the US until a few weeks before the attacks and returned five years later to a more paranoid, xenophobic and martial society. The Pentagon used National Football League games as recruiting grounds for troops, often deploying the same death metal music that was blasted day and night into the cells of the roughly 780 detainees who have been held at Guantánamo (only eight of whom were ever convicted of a crime, three of which were overturned on appeal). Somehow to my atonal ear that tortured music encapsulated what had gone sour in post-9/11 America. 

My second, is that the post-9/11 era produced more US foreign policy blunders than at any time since Vietnam. A lot of people believe that president Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, regardless of its botched execution, marks an end to that phase in American history as the attack’s 20th anniversary approaches. I hope they are right.

Al-Qaeda changed America’s course for the worse — beyond the wildest fantasies of its planners. It is hard to imagine Donald Trump without Iraq, nor Iraq without September 11. Let us hope this dialectic is fizzling out. Sarah, I think you were just a teenager when September 11 happened. How did that horrific day change your perspective on the world? Do you think we are now moving into a post post-9/11 era?

Recommended reading

  • I’d strongly recommend this piece from Peter Spiegel, the FT’s US managing editor, on how America is always fighting the last war. My colleague Gideon Rachman also offered a provocative but wise take on the fall of Kabul this week in which he warns that China could be a big beneficiary.

  • My former colleague, Anatol Lieven, who knows Pakistan intimately and covered the Mujahideen’s jihad against the Soviets, had two perspicacious angles on this week’s debacle. His first, in Foreign Policy, looks at the impact of the coming Afghan refugee flows — and sees it as a precursor of the rise of climate refugees. The other, in Politico, points out that the speed of the Taliban’s takeover ought not to have taken the west by surprise.

  • Finally, do read Sarah Chayes’s thoughtful and knowledgeable note: the Ides of August. Chayes was in Afghanistan for NPR after September 11. She learned Pashto and was recruited by the US military as an adviser, eventually serving two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff. Her perspective on what went wrong is rare and invaluable.

Sarah O’Connor responds

Ed, while you were in a hotel restaurant in New Delhi on September 11, I was attending my second day at sixth form college in England. It was only when I got home that afternoon and my mother opened the door, ashen faced, that I found out what had happened. By that time, both towers had already fallen. 

I suppose I look back on that time as the end of childhood. I was 16, and I had grown up in an era so stable that Francis Fukuyama had declared the “End of History”. I don’t even remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened when I was five, though my parents got my older brother out of bed to watch. Before September 11, it seemed political and economic liberalism had won and any holdouts would come around soon enough.

I suppose this is something everyone learns at around that age, but what happened after September 11 also made me realise the adults in charge don’t always know what they’re doing. The war in Iraq, in particular, was a huge moment of disillusionment for many of my generation. When credit derivatives brought down the world economy in 2008 to the surprise of economists and bankers, it underlined the point.

As for whether we’re moving into a post-post-9/11 era, I think that happened some time ago. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan feels like a very belated full stop. Earlier this year, I read through 1,700 responses to a survey we had organised for young FT readers. While a few mentioned terrorism, it was striking how many more said they worried about the rise of China. I guess history has a few more chapters in it yet.

Rana Foroohar is on leave and will return in September. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘The dangers of promising a green jobs boom’:

“Joe Biden says when he hears climate, he thinks jobs. Well, when I hear jobs, I think costs. If the switch to greener energy sources creates many more jobs, then that energy provision is likely to be significantly more expensive. A transition that doesn’t require vast amounts of labour may well be more sustainable.” — FT reader Viggy

Catch up on previous Swamp Notes on FT.com.

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