Ten years after 9/11, from pre-emptive attack to liberal interventionism

I was on a train in northwest China, from Urumqi, provincial capital of Xinjiang, to the oasis town of Kashgar when the atrocities of 9-11 happened ten years ago. The region borders largely Islamic Central Asia — including Pakistan and Afghanistan — and is the homeland of China’s ethnic Uighur Muslims.

On the dot of 9 am Beijing time on September 12, half way through the long journey across the desert, my phone rang. It was my assistant in Beijing.

“I thought you might want to know what is happening in America,” she said. “There are 40,000 people dead in New York and the president is missing.”

Then the phone went dead. I told my traveling companion Miss Li’s news — which I had no way of knowing was exaggerated — and wondered: “Has Osama bin Laden launched world war three?”

It was three hours before the phone signal returned, and then with a call from an American friend in Beijing, who had turned on his TV before going to bed, in time to see the second plane smash into the World Trade Centre. Al Qaeda was the only culprit in the picture.  

I was Beijing correspondent for The Australian, a national daily broadsheet owned by Rupert Murdoch, and until that moment had been one of the highest profile foreign reporters on the paper, reflecting China’s growing importance to Australia. My trip to Xinjiang aimed to yield stories on China’s Muslim dimension, then secondary to the Tibet issue that commanded so much attention in the Western world.

By the time my train pulled into Kashgar, about 24 hours after Miss Li’s call, the axis of the world’s news had swiveled away from Beijing to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of my Beijing colleagues had scrambled for planes to Islamabad, and some photographer friends were now being chased through the streets of Peshawar by angry mobs.

In Kashgar, the mood was sombre and fearful. The televisions that blared in the corners of cafes and shops did not show footage of the attacks, or their aftermath. The state-controlled news didn’t even put the story at the top of bulletins. (I did not see any of that newsreel until a Christmas trip home.)

After the initial shock, the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus sought to downplay the events of 9-11, to ensure the oppressed and marginalised Muslims under its yolk did not get any anti-authoritarian ideas of their own. Security forces were mobilised across the north-west.

True to form, in the following months and years, the Chinese authorities came down hard on the Muslims of Xinjiang, harnessing the language of the US government’s “war on terror” and using the excuse of “Islamist terrorism” to terrorise its Uighur population.

It was days before I was able to regain the attention of my editors in Sydney, and convince them that maybe I could be useful. Pakistan was only a couple of hours’ drive up the Karakoram Highway after all, and I could probably be in Peshawar in a day or so.

Though I did manage to wrest a few column inches for my Kashgar dateline, it was a couple of weeks before the focus of coverage shifted from the United States. So I took myself to Uzbekistan, and traveled across Central Asia reporting on the arc of Islamism that had barely registered in Australia.

From the miserable Uzbek border town of Termez, I rode a barge down the Oxus River into northern Afghanistan in time to cover a siege of the warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s mud fort by a few hundred escaped Taliban fighters, mainly Arabs and Pakistanis.

The seven-day siege ended just after dawn one morning when the Americans fired an intercontinental ballistic missile from a warship in the Gulf into the middle of the fort, about 15km outside Mazar-i-Sharif. I woke up to the boom, and sat bolt upright in my Soviet-era bunk to see a massive mushroom cloud of smoke and dust roiling above the horizon.

Soon I was walking through the Qala-I-Jangi, taking photos of the bits of bodies — men in shalwar kameez cut in half as they ran from the blast, their eyes and mouths open in terror and fury, their guts and brains spilled onto the grey ground. It was still early, the air was cool, there was no buzz of flies or the stench of rotting human flesh that can cling to one’s own skin for days afterwards. These gruesome sculptures were unreal, unworldly, as if made from resin or stone.

The events of 9-11 changed the world, indeed changed my life. My career has since pivoted around war and atrocity, human cruelty and misery, taking me to Iraq, across the Middle East, Madrid, Morocco, London, Mumbai, and most recently to Kabul, where I was AFP bureau chief with a front row seat for the frontline mess that country has become.

Ten years on, Osama bin Laden is dead, Al-Qaeda is imploding, democratic revolutions are breaking out across the Arab world, and now-wary Western governments have travelled a troubled path from pre-emptive attack to liberal interventionism. That Pakistan’s threat has intensified remains open to question, while Libyans appear in control of their post-dictatorship destiny.

Amid all the hand-wringing regret about the follies that followed the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, perhaps it is time to roll back the fear, restore the liberties that were eroded in the name of national security, and return to the humanist values that gave the West, particularly the United States, its exceptional moral standing in the pre-9-11 world.