I remember back in 2001, after the attacks of September the 11th, I chronicled obsessively the events that occurred as the UK and US invaded Afghanistan on the grounds that this was where Osama Bin Laden happened to have planned the attack from. Being 11 at the time, this was the first time I had been watching daily news and acting in kind of an adult way, trying to understand the causes of the war. Back when the UK was involved in the Kosovan conflict in Bosnia and I was younger, I had a fairytale understanding of war – us vs them, good vs evil etc. I remember romanticising it. For Afghanistan, I was documenting the conflict via pictures I was drawing in MS paint. At the time it didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand the connection between my welfare and that faraway place on the TV. But I remember being able to understand the narrative I think. The world was said to have changed. A global movement (as I type this, the live stream of the westminster debate has a Tory MP discussing the global islamist movement, so the narrative is alive and well!) was brewing to oppose the west and western ideals. We were supposed to go out in the world and fight people so that stopped happening.
It’s still not clear to me how that is supposed to work. The people who planned and executed the September 11 attacks were mostly killed on the day. Their goals, methods and ideas were different to the people who trained and harbored them, and almost no one shared their plan. The goal of terrorism is not to beat an opposing force by strength of arms, but as a kind of violent propaganda to signal that some political goal is worth committing violent acts for – and that opponents to that political goal should think twice because their opposition could engender deadly costs. That’s not the kind of thing that can be countered by overt military force, because simply put there’s no reason for terrorists to ever fight soldiers.
All the various men (yes, invariably men) out there waving guns and declaring death to the West have a structural role to play. The West has gone out into the world to effect changes with no coherent idea of what it wanted – but of course it ran into a variety of established systems and structures. Those systems and structures, as such things do, found the people to do the work of defending them. Those people become terrorists by virtue of being in conflict with western forces fighting terrorism. In Afghanistan, British soldiers turned up in Helmand province in 2006, the war in had been going on for 5 years. No one there had any idea that they were there to fight the Taliban, but once they discovered that the British were prepared to gun down or arrest anyone declared to be Taliban, they worked out that there were plenty of Taliban for the British to fight. Mostly people who had a lot of land, or property. The problem with having as much power as the west does is that we end up defining the reality of the places and people we mess with. We go out to fight terrorism – soldiers have to fight someone – so if terrorists don’t exist before, they end up existing pretty quickly.
Today I’m baffled that other people don’t see the same world I do when they look at the events of the past 20 years. I remember the feeling of incomprehension when we invaded Afghanistan, but I trusted at the time that there was a reason, and it would work. Initially it looked like it had, and that a democratic government had arisen, so when 2003 came and iraq came onto the agenda, I felt quite daring and progressive as a 13 year old supporting the war. There was a grand narrative going on that I barely understood – but I felt smart because I believed. With Iraq and Afghanistan both ruined societies with rampant civil war, I can’t believe anyone else still does. If you believed that by fighting wars in countries where terrorists happen to live, that we could stop terrorism, you’ve been given very strong evidence to indicate you were wrong. It might be possible in theory, but it’s failed in practice. I’d love to understand what it is about the world that other people see differently.