I was expecting a quiet day in Downing Street on Tuesday 11 September 2001. I had been serving as Downing Street chief of staff since 1997, and Labour was three months into its second term. Tony Blair had left that morning for Brighton to give his annual speech to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference. At 1.45pm I saw the first news of an aircraft flying into the World Trade Center in New York City. Initial reports suggested it was a small plane and a dreadful accident. My next meeting was already waiting for me in Blair’s den: Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, whom we had recruited to be one of the international monitors of the IRA’s weapons dumps.
We were interrupted by a duty clerk, one of the Downing Street aides who sit in a corner of the private office 24 hours a day. Another plane had flown into the Twin Towers. I pushed back – surely this was just repeat footage of the first plane crash? The aide insisted it was a second plane. I apologised to Ahtisaari and ran to the outer office. The new footage was surreal; it would change the world forever. We started taking the necessary steps to ensure no coordinated attack could take place in London. I worked with Jeremy Heywood, our principal private secretary, to close UK air space and shut London City Airport. Tony phoned from Brighton asking what he should do about his speech to the TUC. David Manning, our new foreign policy and defence adviser, was in a plane from Washington, DC to New York. He could see the Twin Towers burning from his window. I tried to reach George W Bush on the phone to speak to Tony but he was unavailable, flying round the US on Air Force One. President Vladimir Putin, still a friend to the UK at that stage, telephoned asking what to do.
We managed to reach Bush the next day. He sounded shaken. He was not talking about retaliation or a sudden strike. He said he was not going to “pound sand”, as Bill Clinton had done in 1998 by launching Cruise missiles at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
[See also: The new age of American power]
The intelligence was clear that the 9/11 attacks had been planned by al-Qaeda from its haven in Afghanistan. I left the office and walked to a bookshop on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Books on the Taliban had never been much on my radar; I bought every one I could find. Most were dry and academic. But one, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by the journalist Ahmed Rashid was excellent. I devoured it at my desk in No 10. Tony and Alastair Campbell both tried to borrow it, and I quickly became the expert on the Taliban in Downing Street – not a particularly high bar to clear at the time.
Tony wrote a long note for Bush suggesting an ultimatum to the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and close al-Qaeda’s camps. If the Taliban failed to act, we would need to persuade Pakistan to support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and hit the regime in Kabul hard. Bush called back on Friday 14 September. I described him in my diary at the time as having gone from floppy to Rambo. He started talking about bombing Iraq. Tony tried to pull him back: the problem was in Afghanistan not in Iraq.
We spent the next several weeks flying from Moscow to Islamabad to Riyadh to build a global alliance to respond to the 9/11 attacks. There was overwhelming support for going into Afghanistan and ending Taliban rule. We hoped we would succeed quickly, and we did. After the US-led invasion in October 2001, the Taliban collapsed in a matter of weeks – just as the Afghan army now has. Bin Laden was chased over the Tora Bora mountains – but not captured.
The “war on terror” was born during those first weeks in Afghanistan, and spread in the following years to most parts of the Earth, from London to Bali to Iraq. In the West, governments convinced themselves that Islamist terrorists could be suppressed by force and their underlying grievances tempered by aid. The formula was largely kinetic: assassinate terrorist leaders by drone or special forces, pump in aid, train the country’s own security forces, adopt counter-radicalisation policies and hope that things would get better.
With hindsight we can see that the rapid collapse of the Taliban was the beginning of the war, not the end. But at the time it felt like “mission accomplished”. The catastrophic collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan has been a shock to the West’s collective psyche not just because of the human tragedy and wasted investment, but because it shows that since 2001 we have been building castles on sand.
Now, 20 years later, what do we have to show for the war on terror? We have launched an all-out military and intelligence war on radical groups across the globe, and built a vast, expensive legal and aid apparatus around it. Though measures of success may be obscure or unsettled, we can certainly point to some achievements: squeezed terror financing, networks disrupted and decapitated, territory retaken, lives saved.
But increasingly, all this feels like running to stand still. After two long decades we have returned to where we started. The Taliban has retaken power in Afghanistan after 20 years and we were forced to make a humiliating and deadly retreat. We have driven Islamic State (IS) out of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria only to watch it rebuilding its underground networks and terror capacities in the Middle East and in Asia. We killed Bin Laden in 2011, but al-Qaeda remains intact, surging back in countries such as Somalia and Yemen. Islamist terrorism has spread across the Sahel, Nigeria and Mozambique.
IS-K is now the group to watch: an IS branch expanding its ranks and reach from Kabul through Kashmir to Delhi. Yes, we can say that no attacks have been launched on the US or UK from Afghan soil from the day the Taliban were driven out to the day we let them back in. But otherwise, it is hard to claim the war on terror has been a success.
How can we change the strategy of fighting global terrorism that has served us so badly? In years to come, when we look back at the humiliating retreat from Kabul, this moment may well mark the end of the American Century – something that has been anticipated for decades. Both allies and foes now doubt the US’s staying power and its commitments of support. If the West really has lost confidence in itself and no longer has the patience for long-term security strategies, then we do face a new and bleak future.
We can abandon our defence against terrorism at the source and instead build walls around our nations. But this means a serious rethinking of our foreign and defence policies. If the US, far from “being back” under Joe Biden, is moving towards isolationism, then Europe will have to become more autonomous, as the French president Emmanuel Macron argues. Isolated countries such as the UK, outside the EU and unable to influence the US, will become truly exposed to the threat of terrorism without support or solidarity.
This is the existential choice the West has yet to make. But we must be clear about the options. The illusion politicians try to sell with the promise of “ending forever wars” is that Western voters have a cost-free option available to them. There are always costs. The question is: which is the most responsible and most effective way to protect our collective interests?
Regime change: senior Taliban figure Anas Haqqani (centre right) tours the military vehicles seized at Kabul airport following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Image credit: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Biden is right: there is no way of staying in Afghanistan without a significant military presence. The reason the Taliban has not been attacking Nato soldiers recently is because of the Doha agreement – the peace accord signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban in 2020 – and the negotiations that led to it. If Biden had walked away from this agreement, the Taliban would have turned its guns back on US forces. He would have faced the choice of deploying a surge of US forces or retreating under attack.
It is also the case, however, that over the horizon drone attacks are neither an effective nor accurate way to fight terrorism without forces on the ground, as the civilian casualties caused by the missile attack on IS-K on 29 August show. A forward defence against terrorism will always be a burden in terms of blood and treasure; the question is whether it is worth it, and not just in Afghanistan.
I doubt the debacle in Afghanistan means an end to intervention. Western military and diplomatic history features regular cycles, from overreaching in Vietnam to failing to act in the face of humanitarian disasters such as the genocide in Rwanda and then back again in Kosovo. In the years since 2001 we have gone a step too far in Iraq, intervened from the air alone in Libya and not intervened militarily in Syria. All three have been disasters with severe consequences for both the West and local populations in different ways. Iraq is obvious. The hybrid intervention in Libya spurred the rise of IS in Africa and the spread of its ideology and weapons across the Sahel, causing anarchy in Libya itself and an exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean. The failure to intervene in Syria led to the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, an emboldened Russia and untold suffering within Syria and on its borders.
We will always face the dilemma of whether or not to intervene in a foreign conflict. But there are, of course, different ways of intervening, not just military.
It is true that Western politicians and military planners make a serious mistake if they think they can, in Biden’s phrase, “remake” countries; if they believe different nations – or, for that matter, armies – can be transformed from outside into pale imitations of ourselves. But equally it is wrong to think that there is a quick in-and-out option, where we invade, kill terrorists, leave, and hope the threat to us will not recur, without trying to leave behind sustainable institutions.
In December 2001 the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Afghanistan that the US doesn’t do nation-building. He was quickly contradicted by the White House. But we have to learn that the doctrine of “total refit” for countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan – in the hope that at some point they will be able to stand on their own – is not the answer. It makes no sense to build an army that depends on complicated technology, foreign enablers and technicians and foreign air power. We must try to help nations rebuild after crises, but the conundrum for Western intervention is that countries can only be rebuilt with the consent and participation of all their inhabitants, including those who are not necessarily our friends.
It is clear to me after 20 years that we are not going to resolve these threats with military solutions alone. They need political strategies, and in particular inclusive negotiations – something the Blair government learned in Northern Ireland, having tried everything else.
When I left government in 2007, I said publicly that, on the basis of my experience in Northern Ireland, we should be talking to Hamas, to the Taliban and even to al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly, I was rubbished by former colleagues in government who said while it was fine to talk to the PLO and the IRA it was not acceptable to talk to these new organisations.
The past 14 years of working on these conflicts has reinforced my view that we have to find a way of engaging with armed groups if we ever want to stop the violence.
Some US commentators have argued that Afghanistan shows negotiations with militants are futile – that the Taliban was never serious during the talks in Doha. In fact, it shows the opposite. First, we made a crucial mistake from 2002 to 2004, when the Taliban was suing for peace and pleading to participate, and the US instead decided to hunt its members down. Engaging in dialogue could have given the group a stake in the new Afghanistan, rather than pursuing an ultimately successful insurgency to overthrow it.
Second, we were irresponsibly late to open political talks with the Taliban, only engaging when it could already scent victory. Third, and crucially, the Biden administration, when it inherited Trump’s flawed agreement with the Taliban, explicitly abandoned any attempt to impose conditions on US withdrawal. This was the same mistake that Barack Obama made in 2009 when he surged troops into Afghanistan while at the same time announcing that the US was leaving.
What incentive was there for the Taliban to compromise if it knew the US was leaving without conditions? Had the US decided to clarify that it was leaving, but would only do so if the Taliban ceased violence and engaged in serious negotiation with the Afghan Republic, then there was still a chance of success. There was never going to be a lasting solution in Afghanistan that excluded the Taliban, but we needn’t have handed the group the keys to the country.
Afghanistan should inspire a rethink of how the war on terror is fought. If the past 20 years was based on the triumphalism of a quick victory in Afghanistan, the next should be based on the more sobering lesson that early political engagement with your enemies is essential if we want to end the “forever wars”. When we look at the threat Islamist armed groups pose in Nigeria, in Mali, in Somalia and Mozambique it is hard to believe we will find a solution without some kind of political strategy that involves engaging diplomatically with the men with guns, as well as undertaking endless military advances and retreats. Negotiation should take place not as a panacea, or as an obvious gambit to enable a quick exit, but as an addition to military, intelligence and aid strategies.
Finally, we may have left Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is not about to leave us. Wars don’t end just because we evacuate our troops. Left unfinished, they will circulate and spread, pursuing us, our allies and our interests like viruses. In Iraq, Obama pulled out US forces in 2011, but he had to redeploy them again in 2014 after Islamic State had rampaged across the country and was approaching Baghdad. US forces are still there, for good reason. In Afghanistan the US withdrawal has empowered IS-K, which will recruit fighters from the Taliban disillusioned with the hard realities of governing.
The most likely future for Afghanistan is tragically renewed civil war. The Taliban is not remotely prepared for the challenges of governing a country that is vastly different from the one it ruled in the 1990s. Two thirds of the population are younger than 25 years old and most of them have never known Taliban rule, and some 90 per cent of citizens have access to a smartphone.
The population, particularly in the cities, is not prepared to go back to the Middle Ages. The Taliban is about to face a shattering economic and financial crisis. It has no idea how to feed the people or maintain stability. If it resorts to revenge on special forces that served the Afghan Republic then those forces will take up arms. The likely anarchy will probably lead to an outflow of refugees to Europe and to the export of terrorism and of drugs.
The West has a strong interest in avoiding the worst in Afghanistan. To do so we will need to engage with the Taliban and help persuade the group not to take revenge and not to return to its methods of rule of the 1990s. But we should not make that engagement conditional only on it disowning al-Qaeda and allowing those who want to leave to do so, as Boris Johnson suggests. The international community has a moral duty to the people we have left behind in Afghanistan. We should set a series of principles that include protection of the rights of minorities and women and a genuinely inclusive and accountable government, to which the Taliban will have to adhere if we are going to recognise it and provide assistance to the country.
There should be a monitoring mechanism to ensure it complies with these principles. We should do this with a sceptical frame of mind, because there are major doubts the Taliban has changed, or will change. In doing so, though, we face an enormous moral hazard. We do not want to be complicit in re-imposing Taliban rule on a country that does not want it. But if we simply turn our backs on Afghanistan as it slips from the headlines, it will be a second great betrayal of a new generation of Afghans – one that will come back to haunt us in the future.
If you have any doubts about the seriousness of the mistake we have made in leaving Afghanistan, just look at who is cheering. Anything that unites al-Qaeda, Iran, Russia and China is almost certainly a disaster for the West. Unless we properly debate and learn the lessons from the past 20 years of the war on terror, and fundamentally change our strategy, it is likely we will face more terrorist attacks and more forever wars – because we will have to keep returning to those countries where we left our work unfinished. Instead of intervening in the wrong way, or not intervening at all, we need to learn how to do it better.
Jonathan Powell is CEO of Inter Mediate, an NGO that works on ending armed conflicts around the world, and author of “Talking to Terrorists” (Vintage). He was chief of staff to Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire