This weekend Americans will pause from their usual Sunday morning activities to remember the horror of that September morn ten years ago, when four hijacked airliners cruelly shattered their comfortable sense of invulnerability. “Everything has changed,” ran the oft-repeated refrain in the days and weeks following the September 11 attacks. Well, not really.
To be sure, the decade since 9/11 has witnessed sweeping transformations, in both the United States and Pakistan. For the 2,977 people from 77 countries (including Pakistan) whose lives were so unexpectedly snuffed out that morning, and for their families, everything had changed. Events at home and abroad since then have led Americans to question what ten years ago were unchallenged verities. The United States is in some respects a humbled nation, less confident of its power, less certain of its future.
Pakistan too is a dramatically different country than ten years ago. Violence – including Muslim against Muslim, Pakistani against Pakistani – has exploded. A decade ago, suicide bombings in Pakistan were virtually unheard of; since 9/11, according to statistics compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 289 suicide bombings have killed more than 4,600 Pakistanis. Terrorist violence of all kinds has killed 11,475 Pakistani civilians and 3,890 security personnel over the past ten years.
In a multitude of other ways as well, Pakistan is a changed and, for many, a less happy place. After a growth spurt for four or five years beginning in 2003, the country’s economy today is stagnating, with minimal growth, rising inflation, roaring un- and under-employment, lagging productivity, and low levels of foreign investment. Class divisions are widening, economic safety nets shrinking. Institutions appear even more broken than in the past, while corruption seems more pronounced than ever.
But the idea that the September 11 attacks redefined history or “changed everything” for either the United States or Pakistan is nonsense. The challenges that bedevil Pakistanis today are in most instances the identical ones that frustrated them ten years ago. Good jobs are difficult to find. Schools fail to educate. Power shortages stifle the economy and cause personal inconvenience. Justice is frequently delayed or altogether denied. The political system is uncaring and unresponsive. Public servants seem interested only in serving themselves. None of this is new, or the result of 9/11.
Pakistanis often err in attributing most of the unfortunate developments of the past decade to the American response to the 9/11 attacks. While the US invasion of Afghanistan has clearly produced unfortunate consequences for Pakistan, only some of that country’s ills can be linked to Washington’s war on terrorism. Many – growing food insecurity, for instance, or the country’s failing public health system – stem instead from unwise decisions or decades of neglect.
This is true even of the widespread violence wracking the country. Consider the staggering bloodshed in Karachi, where security, according to the head of Ranger forces in Sindh, is worse even than in Waziristan. Karachi’s violence is not simply a development arising in recent years, nor attributable only to the influx of Pashtuns from the unsettled tribal belt. Today’s carnage has both roots and precedents in pre-9/11 Karachi.
Similarly, suicide bombings assumed epidemic proportions in Pakistan not in late 2001 or 2002, but only after President Musharraf sent the army into the Red Mosque in mid-2007. In 2006, the year before the Red Mosque assault, there were only seven suicide bombings in the country; by 2008, this number had shot up to 59. It is simply too simplistic to blame Pakistan’s suicide bombings on the American invasion of Afghanistan.
Other forms of violence have actually declined since September 11. Incidents of sectarian violence today are dwarfed by the years before 9/11. Again using SATP data, Pakistan suffered 400 incidents of sectarian violence in the three years preceding 2001; so far this year, there have been only 16 comparable incidents of sectarian violence.
In other words, it may be reassuring but it is wrong-headed to look back on the period prior to the September 11 attacks as a secure, prosperous, stable era. Such a practice fails to account for the far more complex mosaic of the past. It also ignores long decades of poor choices by several generations of Pakistani leaders. For instance, the same groups that are now slaughtering innocent Pakistanis were in an earlier day created and nurtured by the Pakistani security establishment. And recall that Pakistan suffered under a succession of incompetent and corrupt governments in the 1990s, before America launched its war on terrorism.
Should Pakistanis succumb to the temptation of blaming the United States for all their troubles, they would also neglect the astounding tolerance for misgovernment they have exhibited over the decades. Pakistan’s leaders have failed the country, but so too have Pakistani voters, who continue to cede power to the same discredited politicians and parties.
What is perhaps most striking about Pakistani views, however, is the wilful self-deceit many Pakistanis embrace. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, many more Pakistanis believe the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks than blame Al-Qaeda. Similarly, large majorities of Pakistanis are convinced that if only America would leave Afghanistan, Pakistan would be rid of the suicide bombings and terrorist attacks that have plagued it in recent years. It’s a comforting thought, but not likely.
Of course it is easy and even satisfying to blame America’s war on terror for all Pakistan’s troubles. But this is sheer folly. Worse, it is dangerous. Doing so encourages Pakistan to ignore its own responsibility for its problems. More importantly, by misdiagnosing their ills, Pakistanis will be less able to devise appropriate strategies for overcoming their difficulties.
Although the 9/11 terrorists struck American targets, Pakistan too has suffered as a result. Moreover, the tactics that Washington has embraced to fight Al-Qaeda and its Taliban friends – drone strikes, for instance – have brought additional hardship and destruction to Pakistan.
Even so, Pakistanis must not now permit the fallout from September 11 to blind them to the true nature of the challenges they face. Were they to make this mistake, the 9/11 hijackers would not have attacked only the United States. They would have grievously damaged Pakistan as well, and exacted a horrific price on Pakistanis and their future.
The writer directs the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.