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Opinion

After 9/11: A new world history timeline

Afghanistan/Iraq, America/Britain - Who to trust when the world changes?

LONDON — Timeline of a new era in world history:

  • Before
  • 9/11
  • After

That is the real meaning of the back-to-back events in the British capital this week. On Thursday, foreign ministers of 70 countries met to decide the way forward in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks were planned. Friday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair took almost seven hours of questions related to the Iraq War. Blair explicitly linked the military action against Saddam to the change in geo-politics brought about by 9/11.

Afghanistan and Iraq are very different countries and the conflicts in each are unique, yet the coincidence of these events happening in London underlined important points of similarity between them. First and most important is the fact that so far Western politicians have yet to get a handle on how the countries they invaded work at a social level.

Tony Blair acknowledged this in his testimony before the Iraq Inquiry. Asked by the panel to look back at the lack of planning for the post-war situation there, Blair, typically, refused to acknowledge there had been any failure. There was plenty of planning, the former prime minister told his questioners, we just planned for the wrong things. No one in Blair's circle expected the total collapse of civil society, and by extension the same was true in American circles.

The U.S. learned one lesson in Iraq: Insurgencies aren't made up of monolithic structures. People become insurgents for diverse reasons. Some are amenable to discreet bribery to stop fighting. If you reach out to those folks with cash and promises of crimes forgiven and future participation in the government they will stop fighting. If you put more troops on the street you can let the hard cases know they face a real fight.

Now that lesson is being applied in Afghanistan — will it work? Are Pashtun tribesmen identical to Arab tribesmen? The simple answer is no. So there is no guarantee that the current surge in Afghanistan will bring about the same result.

But a lesson the "international community" is still trying to learn is who to trust.

At the top of the social tree in each country are educated elites who speak English and other European languages. They naturally get closer to the Western civilian and military leadership. They get first crack at contracts for reconstruction and other tasks. How many of these people are scrupulously honest? How many speak and act in a Western way but approach social life traditionally — meaning they convert contracts into rivers of family patronage, thus stepping over a line into what outside the region is seen as corruption?

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Another similarity between the two conflicts is this: America is in charge with Britain as first among allies. Other countries may pledge money. Britain pledges money and most of the extra bodies.

"This is an alliance we have with the U.S., not a contract," Blair said. The fact that both wars are being fought in countries that have a colonial history with Britain adds another dynamic. One that caused tremendous friction just when Iraq was starting to spin out of control.

Away from the region something the two conflicts have in common is that the publics in the U.S. and Britain are tired of continued military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars have lasted longer than World War II and no conclusion is in sight.

When Blair quoted an unnamed Iraqi to the panel, saying, "We have changed the certainty of repression for the uncertainty of democracy," you could feel the skepticism in the hearing room.

Popular support for the idea of defeating Al Qaeda and bringing the glories of democracy to the region is fading fast. Politicians in the U.S. and Britain can feel the change in the wind. That's why withdrawal dates were being bandied about throughout the Afghanistan conference. That's why Britain has already withdrawn from Iraq.

One final similarity: prospects for the future. About Iraq Blair said, "It's too early to say right now whether democracy will take root and function properly." Multiply that doubt by a factor of 10 and the same could be said about Afghanistan.

None of what happens will change the new historical timeline. World history will still divide:

  • Before
  • 9/11
  • After
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Adrian Toll/flickr

Protesters outside Britain's Iraq Inquiry.

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