9/11: ten years of mistakes

11 September 2011 - 12:04 By GREG MILLS in Washington

At 9.37am on September 11 2001, the hijacked American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 aboard, including the five hijackers, and 125 in the building.

Yet, while the focus this weekend is on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we should also contemplate what has since unfolded.

While nearly 3000 people lost their lives in the coordinated suicide terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York's Twin Towers, 6200 US servicemen have since been killed in combat operations in their aftermath.

US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said, standing before a US flag that once flew adjacent to the World Trade Center, that "nobody attacks this country and gets away with it".

The number of military funerals in nearby Arlington cemetery now averages 30 daily. Speaking to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians gathered silently around, Panetta said: "We must mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by renewing the pledge that we will always keep ... that those who have died during a decade of war have not died in vain."

But is the world a safer place?

Countless civilians have died, too, in the regime-change missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, both wars to lesser or greater degrees motivated, and justified, by 9/11. And terrorist attacks have continued regardless.

Countless mistakes have been made, including the invasion of Iraq, and in the attempts to restore order there and elsewhere, from clumsy attempts at political pacts to the scandalous spending of aid money.

On the flip side, the world is not a safer place for al-Qaeda. The organisation has suffered grave strategic blows, losing its bases and, more recently, its leader to US-led military action.

Today, the dead of 9/11 are being commemorated in countless ceremonies across the US. Outside the walls of the Pentagon, the memorial to that day's events is in the form of a series of benches angled in the direction of flight 77, arranged by the age of the 184 victims, from three to 71. Many dignitaries have over the past week come to pay their respects to an act that has shaped international affairs for a decade.

But much has changed in the US too during this time. The armed forces are in the throes of cuts and could lose 150000 from their ranks, or more than 10%. This reflects well-known problems in the US economy, struggling with unemployment.

One result is that the military could no longer be a foreign policy tool of first resort.

Indeed, secretary Panetta might - when he warned, "Don't mess with America" - be speaking as much to his local leadership as to the foreign.

  • Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and has been speaking at events in Washington this week