7 Years and counting

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 September, 2008, 12:00am

Seven years ago today, two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City, claiming nearly 3,000 lives and unveiling a new era of war on terror. But, after years of intense fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and international efforts to crack down on terrorist groups, has the world become a safer place?

The most recent annual summer poll conducted by CNN showed 35 per cent of Americans believed there was the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the near future, a drop of 6 per cent from last year and the lowest since 2002. But, even if they think the terrorist threat is fading, 54 per cent of Americans still believe the Iraq war is a failure, according to a Gallup Poll in March this year.

Americans are more supportive of the war in Afghanistan, which was initiated in the wake of September 11, to remove the Taleban regime thought to be harbouring Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks. The invasion, or some said 'liberation', seemed an almost immediate victory, as the Taleban forces fled within a month.

But the scenario took on a far more complex aspect when the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003. They overturned Saddam Hussein's government based on intelligence that he possessed 'weapons of mass destruction' - which, in fact, he did not.

Both wars turned messy, with endless insurgent attacks on foreign troops and the kidnapping of foreigners. By the end of August this year, combined American troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeded 4,700 - a greater number of lives than those lost on September 11, 2001.

The deaths of foreign troops are all recorded, but not the lives of civilians - at least, not in any way anyone can agree on. Their lives are taken in violence such as roadside bombs, indiscriminate gunfire and suicide bombings, which occur every week if not every day, with most small-scale bombings which do not involve foreigners no longer reported by the media.

Iraq Body Count, which records violent civilian deaths using data from the media, hospital, morgues and official data, documents 86,669 civilian deaths since the start of Iraq in 2003. But earlier this year, the Iraqi Heath Minister released a survey result for the World Heath Organisation in which it estimated 151,000 Iraqis had died from violent attacks since the invasion of US troops in 2003.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, there is no agreed figure for the number of civilian deaths. The United Nations said 700 Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of this year. All were killed either by insurgents or coalition forces.

Amid ever-growing anti-war sentiment, there seems to be no end in sight to either war. While the situation in Iraq has improved since a surge of US troops pushed the number of soldiers on the ground to 140,000 last year, insurgent attacks in Afghanistan soared five-fold between 2005 and 2007. Last year, 232 coalition soldiers were killed compared with 58 in 2004. The US-backed government only controls about one third of the country - the rest is under the control of the Taleban or its affiliated regional leaders.

Meanwhile, the US may have painted itself as a liberating force at the beginning of the wars, but its reputation was soon tarnished by scandals like Abu Ghraib - the prison in which US soldiers were photographed torturing prisoners.

Similarly controversial is Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba, where the US has imprisoned 'enemy combatants' from all parts of the world. Of almost 800 detainees incarcerated there - many for years - only one has been convicted, and in a closed-door military trial. In short, neither the wars nor the controversy that has dogged their execution has done anything to make the west less of a target for terror, and on the contrary has done much to make it - in particular the US - more reviled by Islamic extremists.

Seven years on from the September 11 attacks, the divide between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds - arguably a root cause behind World Trade Centre attack - still seems irreconcilable, and an end to the War on Terror as elusive as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.