Why did American policy makers fail to anticipate and prevent the calamitous event of 9/11?  How is it that they showed an inadequate understanding of the forces that were building up the monster that suddenly landed at the towering symbol of American might?  What made the prestigious think-tanks of the country, which were envisioning ‘the end of history’ and laying down a road map for a New American Century, to remain so oblivious of the need to peep deep into the conspiratorial baggage of those who were going all over the globe and setting up their nests of terror in a sizeable part of it?

A number of articles have recently appeared in the press with regard to the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  But hardly anyone has addressed itself to the above basic questions.  To my mind, it is absolutely necessary to do so.  Unless this is done, no correct picture of the happenings leading to 9/11 would emerge, and neither India nor United States nor the international community as a whole would be able to root out the menace of terrorism from its midst and provide safe future to the people.

In 1990s, America’s historical imagination failed to read the contours of the reality that emerged at the end of the Afghan War (1979-89) in the region comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and North-West India.  During the war, the United States had supplied to the Afghan and other Mujahideens, through the ISI of Pakistan, huge quantity of smart weapons and sophisticated communication equipment.  It had also encouraged the policy of invoking the spirit of ‘Jihad’ and motivating the Mujahids to fight with blind fanaticism against the un-Islamic and godless Russians.  It had also extended logistic and financial help in mobilising the ‘Jihadi’ elements from various Muslim societies of the world.

All this was understandable. Over everything else, precedence had to be given to the goal of winning the war.  But where American failed was to let the new forces become, at the end of the war, a power in themselves and make use of terror, religious frenzy and new technologies to retain that power and extend it elsewhere.  On the ground of being erstwhile allies it even provided, at the initial stages, encouragement to them.

When, in 1990, I was trying to beat back the Pakistani sponsored onslaught of terrorism and subversion in Kashmir, I could clearly see that the United States, though aware of what was happening, did nothing to stop the misuse of its special equipment or discourage Pakistan from resorting to a venture which was basically savage and would set an unsavoury precedent. Nor did it do anything to check the ISI from dispatching war-hardened ‘Jihadis’  to Kashmir for carrying out guerrilla cum terrorist operations with a view to gobbling up the Valley.  America did not realise that the Mujahids were being allowed to taste blood with impunity, and that they would one day prowl over as distant a land as New York.

I have little doubt that if, before abandoning the Afghan-Pakistan region, America had shown even a modicum of historical imagination and taken measures to weaken the forces of extremism operating in it, and not permitted Pakistan to create proxies of terrorist organisations to sub-serve its interests in Kashmir, there would have been no large scale growth of fanatical cells elsewhere, no emergence of al-Qaeda with capacity for deep penetration, and no occurrence of horrific event of 9/11.  

Unfortunately, the disposition of the American authorities at that time was to lean towards the allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir and underplay the atrocities committed by the terrorists under the guise of being fighters for freedom.  In the ensuing atmosphere, the scales of the balance were reversed.  Those who took action against the militants to save life and property were shown in poor light before the international community, while those who resorted to brutal violence and calculated disinformation were projected as persons with a good cause.  Nothing could have oxygenated the terrorist organisations more than this attitude.

A number of factors had combined to compel the Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.  One of them, for example, was the supply of special weapons to the Mujahideens by the Americans, such as surface-to-air stingers missiles which had acted as a ‘poisonous insects-bite’ on the Soviet Air Force and virtually grounded it.   But the leaders of the Mujahideens gave it out that it was solely the strength of the ‘Islamic faith’ and ‘Islamic sword’ that had brought down the mighty Soviet empire and caused its subsequent disintegration. A belief was also injected amongst the followers that the other ‘enemies of Islam’ could be likewise vanquished if the tradition of ‘Jihad’ and martyrdom was kept alive.  As Samuel Huntington, the celebrated author of the Clash of Civilisations, has noted, “the Afghan War left behind a legacy of experienced fighters and a heady sense of power and self-confidence  over what had been achieved and a driving desire to move on to other victories.”

It was in this milieu that the two hitherto little known organisational – al-Qaeda and al-Jihad – acquired prominence. The former had been organised by Osama bin Laden, a scion of a fabulously rich family of Saudi Arabia and the latter by Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor.   They came separately to Afghanistan to help in organsing ‘Jihad’ against the Soviets.  But, as the war neared its end, they decided to join hands and merge their organisations.  The new outfit was also called al-Qaeda.  Its main objective was to carry out ‘Jihad’ at the global level till a new world order, in the mould of Islam, was brought about.  America was declared as a fountain-head of moral corruption and its civilisation was castigated as “the worst civilisation witnessed by the history of mankind”.  It was made clear by Osama bin Laden that, unless “America abandoned the Middle East, converted to Islam and ended the immorality and godliness of its society and culture, it would be at war with Islamic nation, a nation that desired death more than the American  desired life.”

It was in the context of the above views and declarations that the al-Qaeda and its affiliates undertook the task of destroying American power and prestige and that of its allies through a series of terrorist attacks.  To recount only one of them as an example, the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombarded on August 7, 1998, by way of car-explosions, resulting in death of 212 persons and injuries to about 500. 
   
These attacks alerted the American Administration and it took some measures; but, as  observed by the 9/11 Commission, “not in the sense of mustering anything like the kind of effort that would be gathered to confront an enemy of the first, second or even third rank”.  That was why when 9/11 happened, every one, except the organisers, were aghast with surprise and shock.  The damage done was enormous.  American lost not only 3000 innocent lives but also its face.  As Osama bin Laden could boast soon after the horrible occurrence, “The towers of New York collapsed and their collapse precipitated an even greater debacle: the collapse of the myth of America, the great power.”

The American failure to avert the tragedy was not confined to the arena of national security and intelligence alone.  It was attributable to many other causes as well.  To some extent, America had been carried away by the belief of having become, at the close of the century, the sole super power.  It could not think that anyone would dare to attack its home-land in the manner it was done. The warning signals emanating from such events as massive bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were not seen in all their dimensions.  It did not realise that during the Afghan War, it had over-strengthened and over-activated the forces of terrorism and subversion and done nothing to deplete and deflate them soon thereafter.

Most important of all, the dangerous potential of the fanatical fringe, created by the extra-conservative interpretation put on Islam by the radical ideologues, such as Mohammad Wahhab, Maulana Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb, was not understood.

(The writer is a former Governor of J&K and a former Union Minister)