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There are some events with which you feel a personal association just by being around at the time — the moon landings, say, or the assassination of John F Kennedy. 9/11 was another. I was having lunch at Kensington Place restaurant when the news flashed up on a screen and we saw the incomprehensible images, endlessly repeated, of something hitting a tall building, and then the dusty explosion. Then another.
I ran back to the Standard, where this paper was, among all the confusion, bringing out an edition with those unforgettable images on the front page. Every paper did the same the next day — few words were needed alongside those pictures. But the shock was universal; for London, New York, back then, did not feel like a foreign country — we felt almost personally involved. And when the individual stories emerged — and those sick-making images of men and women jumping to their deaths — it felt even more like an attack on people like us. We vied with each other in our condemnation of what had happened and of that unfamiliar entity, al Qaeda.
So, when Tony Blair said that Britain would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the US, there was no opposition, no questioning. I was travelling the next day to Ireland to prepare for my wedding later on; everything there was closed down for, I think, three days of mourning. And when the UK Prime Minister took the decision to join the US invasion of Afghanistan, it seemed like a response proportionate to the atrocity. That was then. Twenty years on tomorrow, how do we feel? We still feel, I think, the same revulsion for what happened, the same sense of appalled fascination at those towers falling, at the tiny images of the poor people jumping from upper floors. And I think that we feel — at least, I do — that the initial decision to go into Afghanistan to extirpate al Qaeda was correct. But what followed…the nation building, the attempt to make Afghanistan without the Taliban like us… that looks now like hubris. President Biden has consciously made this anniversary memorable, by, 20 years on, delivering Afghanistan back to the Taliban, with a bonus legacy of £65 billion worth of American military spending. That’s the result of what male reporters invariably describe as the expenditure of “blood and treasure” — soldiers’ lives, and our money. This paper’s reports today about Afghan refugees’ efforts to settle in London are the human consequences of that decision. So, what morals should we be drawing on the anniversary of that intervention? The first is not that military intervention is always wrong; sometimes it is the least bad thing to do. It is that military intervention should always be governed by clear political thinking about its objectives.
In the case of the invasion of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban (then followed by an embarrassingly long attempt to find Osama bin Laden, reportedly hiding in inaccessible caves), was a reasonable aim, so that Afghanistan would not again host Islamist terrorist movements that would threaten us all. But beyond allowing for the election of a quasi-democratic government, and supporting it with aid organisations and funding, that should have been that. Our aims in keeping troops there fluctuated over time; for years I kept a letter from the then defence secretary, John Reid, explaining that British troops were in Afghanistan to protect aid organisations’ work. The aim was never clear.
Another moral, which hardly needs making now, is that we cannot trust the US as we did 20 years ago. Tony Blair’s instinctive response that we must stand shoulder to shoulder with our closest ally would now have to be qualified quite heavily. Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan was taken almost without consultation with this country and other Nato allies.
That moral, that we should never again blindly follow the US, does not simply derive from the Afghan intervention but from the far more catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003, an intervention based on a lie.
It was the implosion of that regime — entirely unrelated to al Qaeda or to Islamism — which allowed Islamic State to emerge.
The lessons of 9/11 aren’t tidy, but they do need to be learned. But the right response to the anniversary is more simple. It’s sorrow for the poor people who died horribly in that attack and the people who loved them. We felt for them then. We feel for them now.