The war in Afghanistan killed thousands, but it’s not clear what it accomplished: Roche
Retired Senator Douglas Roche, author of “Recovery: Peace Prospects in the Biden Era,” shares his thoughts on the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its fallout. This article was published in the influential Hill Times newspaper on Sept 2, 2021.
20 years since 9/11, what have we learned?
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when I stepped out of the shower at 7 a.m. Mountain time, my wife told me to look at the television. With a towel wrapped around me, I stood staring at a replay of a lone plane smashing into the World Trade Center in New York City. Then the second plane. Then a third plane hitting the Pentagon. Then a fourth plane downed in Pennsylvania. Terrorists had struck the United States with full force. With the collapse of the Twin Towers, I saw my hopes for a culture of peace shatter.
There wasn’t much to do at first except stare transfixed at the horror unfolding on the screen, lament the political chaos, and be bewildered by it all. Since the Senate wasn’t sitting, I was in Edmonton, and since flying in Canada was immediately banned for several days, I wasn’t going anywhere.
In times of crisis, politicians put out a statement. That’s what I did. “The New York/Washington attacks were attacks against humanity,” I said. “They require a human-centred response. Revenge is unworthy of the solemn obligation we have to end violence by getting at the root cause of violence.” I doubt anyone paid the slightest attention to the press release.
My best statement was simply attending a Muslim service at the El-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton to show my solidarity with the Muslim community, which had felt a backlash because the suicide terrorists were young Muslim men. I stood silently as the imam told the assembly to remember that Islam stands upon the pillars of justice and peace. With tears in their eyes, Muslim men came up to shake my hand and thank me for coming. It was evident they were trying to find ways to show their abhorrence of violence.
When flights resumed, the Senate launched an emergency debate on a government motion expressing condolences to the victims and determination to bring to justice the perpetrators of the terrorism. I was the seventh speaker. I urged the government to uphold the principles of international law in responding to the terrorists and shun the language of war, which suggests that only militarism can can combat terrorism: “It is not war that we should seek, but justice. It is not the rule of war that should predominate but the rule of law.”
In calling for Canada to use the catastrophe as a wake-up call, to energize the political systems to provide more social justice, I could, I knew, be perceived as being insensitive to the thousands of lives lost in the terrorist attacks. So the following week in New York, I took the subway down to the financial district and saw the World Trade Center wreckage with my own eyes. The devastation at Ground Zero was overpowering. Mounds of debris, six storeys high, assaulted the eyes. People were stunned looking at the grotesque sight.
I then went to the United Nations and talked with Jayantha Dhanapala, under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs, who said that, bad as the tragedy was, it could have been worse. “Consider if weapons of mass destruction had been used by these terrorists,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded for preventive diplomacy to head off future terrorist attacks. He went unheard. The UN Security Council gave its assent to “take all necessary steps” to respond to the attacks. But the U.S. had only revenge on its mind and started bombing Afghanistan, the presumed home of the terrorists. I got up in the Senate several times to argue that the Security Council had not given its assent to a bombing campaign that would kill innocent Afghan civilians in their villages and force thousands of refugees to flee along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and try to survive in unspeakable conditions.
The U.S. and NATO started to deploy ground troops, which brought Canada into the Afghanistan war. What started as a campaign to exterminate the al Qaeda terrorists became a war to take out the Taliban. Canada, without any hard thinking about the matter, found itself fighting a war in Afghanistan.
Learning that war is futile is a very hard lesson.
– Doug Roche
I seemed to be a lonely voice calling for the international community to mount—with the same vigour displayed in the bombing campaign—a massive assault on poverty. It is the inhuman conditions that so many millions of people are subjected to that breed the conditions that terrorists exploit.
The Western military machines tried to convince the public that Afghanistan was a “just war.” In the fourth century, St. Augustine taught that a war could be justified if certain conditions were met. These, principally, are that the damage must not exceed the good to be sought (proportionality) and the use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated. Modern weapons, which kill indiscriminately, and the rise of international institutions to preserve the peace (the United Nations) have rendered the “Just War” theory obsolete.
But learning that war is futile is a very hard lesson. It saddens us all that more than 165,000 Afghanis died in the Afghan war, along with 2,500 American troops and 158 Canadian soldiers. The war ended in chaos. The Taliban took over the country. The U.S. troops went home.
It’s now 20 years since the 9/11 attacks. What have we learned? How will we react the next time the drums of war roll?
Douglas Roche served in the Senate from 1998 to 2004. His latest book is Recovery: Peace Prospects in the Biden Era.
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