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What have we learned from the War on Terror?

The anniversary of 9/11 this week, along with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has seen politicians, military leaders and the public reflect on the past two decades.

The anniversary of 9/11 this week, along with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has seen politicians, military leaders and the public reflect on the past two decades.

But what has really been learned from these events that shaped world history?

Today, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent Karen Middleton on the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on foreign policy 20 years later.

 

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

The anniversary of 9/11 this week, along with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has seen politicians, military leaders and the public reflect on the past two decades.
 

But what has really been learned from these events that shaped world history?
 

Today, The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent Karen Middleton; on the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on foreign policy 20 years later.

 

It’s Wednesday, September 15.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Karen, could you start by telling me about where you were during 9/11? 

 

KAREN: 

Yes, I was in the United States. I was a correspondent for a newspaper, and we were chasing John Howard, who was the Prime Minister, to Washington. 

 

He had been invited to give an address to the Congress, which was a very prestigious invitation. But unfortunately, events intervened in the form of the terrorist attacks. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“This just in, you’re looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Centre and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre.”

 

KAREN: 

We were in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., just a couple of blocks from the White House. And we'd been at the White House and the Pentagon the day before that, and were due to have a news conference with John Howard that had been scheduled from the night before. And it did go ahead. But the planes hit the buildings in New York just before that. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“A passenger flight ran into the North side of the World Trade Centre. As you can see the second explosion that you’re looking at now, in the second twin tower has spread much debris.”

 

KAREN: 

And while we were having that news conference, the plane hit the Pentagon just across the river. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:

“And we also have a report now that it was a plane that crashed into the Pentagon. And we have a large fire at the Pentagon and the Pentagon is being evacuated, as we speak now.”

 

KAREN: 

We would have seen it happen had we had the curtains open. But because the TV crews needed to have the curtains shut to balance the light, we didn't. But of course, everything went crazy straight after that. 

 

Archival Tape -- George W Bush:

“I’ve ordered that the full resources of the Federal Government will go to help the victims and their families and to conduct a full scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act. Terrorism again our nation will not stand.”

 

RUBY:

Hmm, and what was your personal experience like in the aftermath of 9/11? Is there anything in particular that sticks with you 20 years on?

 

KAREN: 

Well, there are huge numbers of moments that stick with you, but I think there's one in particular that comes back to me a lot. And it was a few days after the actual attacks, about five days later, in a little town to the north of Manhattan called Nyack. I have some friends who live there. And I'd gone up to see them on that weekend after what had occurred on the Tuesday. And we went to their local Episcopalian church on the Sunday morning, and there was a sense of a community devastated. The county that that town is in, Rockland County, had lost, I think it's 81 people. They'd lost school teachers, firefighters, school children, just enormous numbers of people from the wider community. And they were completely devastated. And a lot of people took refuge or took solace, I guess, in that church that morning just for a sense of coming together. 

 

So we went along, and the priest gave her sermon and she was trying to offer that comfort. But then she also posed a question. She wondered if America should examine its own attitudes and its policies to try and understand why this kind of hatred would have been brought upon itself. 

 

And as soon as she said that the atmosphere in the church just completely changed and people got to their feet and shouted at her, they were calling out, no, no, you could hear them shouting, bouncing off the walls, you know, echoing around this stone church. 

 

And they literally shouted her down. I've never seen anything like that in a church service, either before or since. And it was just an extraordinary moment. She had been trying to capture the bigger picture. She had been asking, I guess, what at a different time, in a different place was a reasonable question. But in those particular circumstances, on that day, with that level of grief, it was the wrong question to ask those people and they just couldn't hear it. 

 

RUBY:

Mm, and I suppose what you saw in the church that day, that’s a microcosm of what was happening across the United States. There was a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and then the War on Terror was announced not long after the attacks. That led to the next 20 years in Afghanistan. So when you think back now to that national mood at the time of the attacks and then I suppose the course that was set at that moment, what do you think? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, I think the mood was grief and shock initially. And then the government steered that very much to action. It was a government that wanted revenge for those attacks. They settled on Afghanistan as having been the source of the attacks in the sense that the terrorists had trained there, and the government set about mounting its own war. In response, the president of the US, George W. Bush, gave an address down at Ground Zero, which I remember very well with a loud hailer. 

 

Archival Tape -- George W. Bush: 

“Thank you all. I want you all to know…it can’t go any louder...”

 

KAREN: 

Saying that that he would make sure that those people who were responsible would hear the voices of Americans in reply. 

 

Archival Tape -- George W. Bush: 

“I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

 

KAREN: 

And that was a signal that they were effectively going to war. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Supporters: 

“USA! USA! USA!”

 

KAREN: 

They mounted a war very quickly within a month, really, military forces were going into Afghanistan and that war has lasted 20 years. And I think as I look back on what was said that day in the church and I think about that sentiment, I think what happened was that there wasn't any real reflection on the history of Afghanistan as a nation that had seen people coming from other countries trying to invade, effectively, before. Over several generations, over centuries. And none of those foreign countries that had sought to come into Afghanistan had ever succeeded. 

 

But there wasn't a reflection on that. And I think the concern or the lesson there is that it's important not only to seek to avenge what happened, but to think carefully about the best way to do that, and to make sure that you are not causing more problems in doing it. And I'm not sure that that occurred. 

 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment. 

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RUBY:

Karen, it's 20 years on from 9/11, the US has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan. When you think of that 20 years, do you think that there are lasting achievements? 

 

KAREN: 

Yeah, I mean, there are some. And for a start, you have to look at what the objectives were, as stated when they first went in, in 2001. And there were two: that they wanted to get Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist network that were behind the attacks, and that they wanted to ensure that Afghanistan could never again be a haven or a training ground for terrorists. 

 

Now, it took them 10 years to achieve that first objective, but that was able to be achieved at a single moment in time on a particular day in May of 2011. 

 

Archival Tape -- Barack Obama:

“Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world, that the Unived States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden the leader of al Qaeda, a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”

 

KAREN: 

But the second one is a much harder thing to say that you've done. Certainly, they have achieved the absence of a major mass scale terrorism attack, one on the scale of September 11 that has been avoided; and that that has never happened again in the 20 years. But it's an objective that you actually have to check yourself against every single day, forever, because it's not something that is achieved in a single moment of time and move on. 

 

So there's that I think remains a difficulty. And it's certainly seeded terrorism across the world. We saw the Bali bombings. We saw the bombings in London. We've seen countless terror attacks around the world that were inspired by the events of September 11 and the aftermath of war in Afghanistan. So we are not a terrorism free world as a result of those endeavours. 

 

There have been other things achieved. There have been a whole generation of young people in Afghanistan who got an education, particularly women.

 

There was a report published by Human Rights Watch just ten days before the Taliban took Kabul. And it was looking at and a law in Afghanistan that was introduced in 2009 called the Eliminate Violence Against Women Law. And it was finding that it did drive genuine change, but it had been slow. But it also said that part of the reason it had been slow was that there was such enormous fear of reprisals amongst women, and pressure from police and prosecutors and judges that women were deterred from filing complaints. And if you look at the situation now with the Taliban takeover, it's hardly going to improve. And I particularly thought the title of the report was very resonant. It was called I Thought Our Life Might Get Better. Now that, of course, there's an awful lot about the dashed hopes and expectations of generations of Afghans looking at what the future holds for them now. 

 

RUBY:

And so when you think about the situation now, what sorts of questions do you think the United States, and then I suppose Australia by extension of our position as their ally in all of this, what are the questions that we should be asking right now? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, I do think we have to look with very clear eyes at what happened in those 20 years, what happened in the lead up, what happened throughout the war. Look at it in the beginning, through the middle period and through the aftermath, and the withdrawal, and see what was done right and what mistakes were made.

 

I think governments have a tendency to want to brush over the bad things because they're difficult. They reflect badly, and they don't necessarily want to dwell on them. They want to move away from that period into a new period. But when you don't reflect, when you don't take stock, when you don't look at the military mistakes, the political mistakes, the moral mistakes, if you look at issues like allegations of war crimes that were made, strategic mistakes in the constant changing of the mission, what the military likes to call mission creep, if you don't look at these things, then there's a much greater risk, as we've heard down the centuries from the likes of Winston Churchill and many philosophers before him, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of history. That is what they say. 

 

And I do think that there's a case for examining carefully and clearly what went wrong, being straightforward with the Australian public in the case of our country and really trying to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated the next time we get called to a conflict. 

 

There is no justification for terrorism, none. And so none of that reflection should be seen as any attempt to justify any kind of terrorist attack, let alone one on the scale of 9/11. But countries should examine, I think, their diplomacy, the way they engage with other countries and how they are received. 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. Yeah. It's interesting that that kind of reflection perhaps can only happen 20 years after something like 9/11 occurred and with our involvement in the country finally ending; it's only kind of once all of those things have happened that I think it seems like anyone's ready to to think about that. 

 

KAREN: 

Well, I think there's a good case, when you go back 20 years, for taking a breath. And I think that's really what the priest was saying. We need to take a breath. We need to look at this situation very carefully and clearly. And when we respond, we need to make sure we're doing it in the right way with the right objectives and in a way that's going to achieve what we are desiring and not make things worse. And that kind of reflection in that moment wasn't done. 

 

Karen, thank you so much for your time. 

 

KAREN: 

Thanks, Ruby. 

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RUBY:

Also in the news today,

 

The ACT lockdown has been extended for four weeks until the 15th of October after the territory recorded 22 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday.

 

Chief minister Andrew Barr announced several new financial support measures to support workers and businesses during the lockdown.

 

And New South Wales recorded 1,127 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, with authorities saying it is too early to tell whether case numbers have reached a peak.

 

Victoria recorded 445 new local cases of Covid-19 and two deaths. Of the 158 people currently in Victorian hospitals with Covid-19, 91% were unvaccinated.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

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