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9/11, Afghanistan and the West: The Day After


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Jaume Aurell |

Full Professor of History and researcher of Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra

The twentieth anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York coincided with the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The direct consequences of 9/11, the most visible manifestation of which has been the military intervention of Western powers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are coming to an end. We are now entering the day after of the short deadline, i.e., in the area of medium and long term repercussions deadline, which are not as tangible, but are worth analyzing carefully because of their more lasting influence.

Military interventions, the system used by the West to stop Islamic terrorism in the last two decades, have not proved effective in changing the status of the occupied territories. goal However, beyond the legitimate moral doubts they have raised, the reality sample is that they have indeed fulfilled their main purpose, that of prevention, since terrorist attacks in the West have decreased in the last decade. This decrease is probably due to a series of combined effects, including the greater sophistication of the security mechanisms in place and the invincible trend towards the division of the Arab world - the focus of the most effective and global terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But there seems to be no doubt that the presence of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan has made it possible to weaken at least some of these organizations, to obtain crucial information to combat them more effectively and to dissuade some candidates from joining the ranks of the jihadists.

The bad news is that these military interventions have contributed to the deterioration of the West's already battered prestige in the world and weakened its own internal cohesion. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been mistakenly equated with the expansive dynamics of the colonizations of the nineteenth-century powers - such as Britain's presence in India or Belgium's in the Congo, veritable gold mines for the occupying countries - or those of the Cold War, such as the wars in Korea or Vietnam. But Afghanistan was neither the Congo nor Vietnam, since it responded to very different historical conditions: while colonial expansion in the 19th century was essentially economically motivated and the conflicts of the Cold War had an economic basis, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan responded - at least in theory - to a preventive need. In this case, the analogies with Pearl Harbor are far greater than those with British India or the Vietnam War.

But the essential question behind all this, the great question that the West must now address, is what its role will be on the international geopolitical stage and what mechanisms should be activated in the new scenario for the defense of its principles and, ultimately, its survival. A demagogic approach to this question has led many Western intellectuals and ideologues, at least since the cultural revolution of 1968, to adopt a self-flagellating, meaculpistic and self-conscious stance. This stance overlooks the fact that any civilization - be it China, Russia or Islam - tends to be expansive, as historical reality since the ancient world has demonstrated time and again. Once the economic interventionism of colonization, the military interventionism of the Cold War and the preemptive interventionism of post 9/11 have been discarded, the West must seek other means of persuasion if it does not want to be colonized, through facts and ideas, by Islamic fundamentalism, Russian authoritarianism or Chinese dehumanization.

But it is impossible to persuade the other if there is a lack of self-esteem - which is often simply a lack of reflection - for one's own values. However battered they may seem and however many difficulties they are going through, the West continues to treasure values - the promotion of freedom, the establishment of democracy, respect for minorities, the distinction between politics and religion, a stable legal system - and to enjoy realities - the welfare state, the highest rates of economic equality and political stability - that generate attraction all over the world. These are not theories, assumptions or utopias but tangible realities: it cannot be otherwise explained that Europe continues to be the dream destination for millions and millions of immigrants from all over the world, as the United States once was.

I can't get out of my mind the heart-stopping scene of the two Afghans who clutched their last hopes of reaching the West to the landing gear of one of the last planes to leave Kabul airport at the end of August. Their journey lasted little more than two minutes, before they fell into the void, which gives an idea of the Degree of despair they were experiencing. The West was their Mecca, and they would probably not have been let down in their dream, as those who did reach their goal, and are settling in European countries, testify time and again. As they themselves explain in interviews that can be read these days in any media, the West is not paradise, and inequalities also cohabit in its bosom, but it at least allows them to fight for a decent life in a much more stable context than the places they come from.

The present moment is crucial and calls for the search for ways of cultural persuasion, rather than simple recipes based on military empire, economic colonization or political authoritarianism, which are precisely the weapons wielded by other civilizations. It is not a question of a return to the past, but of combining a rigorous self-knowledge of one's own tradition, of its non-negotiable values, with an active search for new formulas of suggestion.