11 Sep 2011

9/11: changed perspectives since 2006

In 2006 we commemorated the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. How have political and military developments since then changed our view of what happened in 2001?

In 2006 we commemorated the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. How have political and military developments since then changed our view of what happened in 2001? (Getty)

The events of 9/11 initiated the “war on terror”. Within a month of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States and its allies had launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, whose aim was to dismantle the al-Qaeda organisation that had planned the 11 September attacks.

Less than two years later, and in the face of widespread political opposition, coalition forces moved into Iraq. Although there was no clear link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, regular statements by George W Bush and members of his administration between 2001 and 2003 suggested otherwise.

By the late summer of 2006, the United States and its allies, most notably the UK, were involved in two major conflicts thousands of miles away. Inevitably, the fifth anniversary of 9/11, in 2006, prompted much analysis of what had happened in the preceding five years.

Evolving perspective

So how has our perspective changed since 2006 on what, for most of us, has been the defining historical event of the 21st century?

Politically, the landscape in the United States and the United Kingdom has been transformed. In 2006 both countries were still led by the men who were in power on 9/11.

Since then the US has voted in its first black president, while in this country two prime ministers have followed Tony Blair into No.10. In 2010, the UK ushered in its first coalition government since world war two.

Economically, too, five years ago is another country. In the autumn of 2006 the UK recorded its fourth successive quarter of growth running above its long-run trend. Since then, though, we have seen maintly recession and austerity. The world has suffered an economic crisis described in 2008 by the then Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling as “arguably the worst in 60 years”. Only this week he revised that assessment down to “100 years”.

‘With you to the last’

The close relationship between George W Bush and Tony Blair had been founded, in part, on the unanimity of their responses to 9/11 and to the apparent threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

The tone was set just weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers, when Mr Blair, addressing the 2001 Labour Party conference, famously pledged: “We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last.”

The perception among critics that an overheated Mr Blair had become George Bush’s “poodle” continued to dog the British leader until he stood down in 2007. By contrast, Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial encounters with Mr Bush were conspicuously cool.

Nowadays the UK enjoys an “essential” but not obviously “special” relationship with the US, underpinned by cordial relations between David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Spike in fatalities

In military terms, the apparently inexorable escalation of the allies’ commitments meant that, by September 2006, the British fatality count in Iraq had started to rise again after dipping in the previous year. In the whole of 2006 there were 29 deaths. The United States suffered 791 deaths in Iraq in the same year.

There was a spike in UK fatalities in Afghanistan in September 2006, when 19 British troops were killed. 2006 as a whole saw 39 UK fatalities in Afghanistan. In the preceding four years there had only been four British deaths in the country.

Five years on from 2006, Britain’s presence in Iraq is a memory. 179 UK troops lost their lives fighting there. The focus of our military efforts, and those of the western allies, is Afghanistan, where the UK fatality count now stands at 380.

The United States plans to have withdrawn all its troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Britain and other Nato countries are similarly committed to a gradual withdrawal of their troops.

State of emergency

President Bush coined the phrase “war on terror” on 16 September 2001. Speaking at Camp David, he announced: “This crusade – this war on terrorism – is going to take a while.”

But for most people in west, this state of war has hardly impinged on their lives. Millions of demonstrators across the world may have protested against the Iraq war in early 2003, but daily life in the US and in Europe goes on, while war remains the business of state agencies.

“The distinction between the state of war and peace is blurred. We are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency,” according to philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

In September 2006 that “state of emergency” was defined by MI5 in the UK as “severe”. In August 2006 the British government had introduced a threat level scale to indicate the security services’ assessment of the danger or terrorism.

Within days of its introduction, the “severe” assessment had been raised to “critical”, the highest level, in response to the transatlantic aircraft plot, a plan to detonate liquid explosives on airliners travelling across the Atlantic from the United Kingdom.

Since 2006 the threat level assessment has fluctuated between “severe” and “substantial”, where it resides at present.