THE anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States always gives me pause for thought. It’s hardly surprising really given that as a foreign correspondent the impact of that dramatic day back in September 2001 effectively mapped out much of my subsequent working life.

This year as we reach the 20th anniversary it seems especially auspicious.

It’s not just the rounded passage of time that gives it a special resonance, but the inescapable fact that after two decades, the west at least appears to have learned nothing from the intervening years of the so-called “war on terror.”

Take Afghanistan as the obvious starting place. Trillions of dollars spent, countless lives lost, and blood spilled, and lo and behold the Taliban are back stronger than ever and the country is right back where it started from.

There was something quite surreal when US officials announced the other day that they were concerned about the “affiliations and track records” of some of the people named by the Taliban to fill top posts in Afghanistan’s new government.

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Is that really all Washington has to say right now, knowing that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new interior minister, is one of the FBI’s most wanted men due to his involvement in suicide attacks and ties with al-Qaeda?

Frankly, it’s akin to dismissively saying – if he were still alive – that Osama bin Laden might still prove “problematic” again on the global-terrorism front.

Equally surreal is that all this should happen almost precisely 20 years to the day back in 2001 when US president George W Bush, megaphone in hand, standing on the rubble of the Twin Towers and surrounded by New York firefighters, declared: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

As slogans go, that might have captured the mindset and moment for many Americans, but in the intervening two decades since the ‘war on terror” was launched, such fighting talk now has a distinctly hollow ring to it.

For so long now the Americans have been great at talking up their fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism, but when measured in terms of real results, Uncle Sam has time and again been found wanting.

Rummaging through my old work notebooks and diaries, as I inevitably find myself doing every year as September 11 comes around, I was struck by how often such grand slogans and soundbites have been the key characteristic of the US response during its “war on terror”.

It was US General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the special forces, for example, who once boasted that he could “unpack democracy from the back of a Chinook”.

I wonder just what was going through McChrystal’s mind these past weeks, as he watched US forces struggle to pack enough fleeing Afghans onto aircraft as the democracy, they tried to build through “kinetics” and military muscle gave way to a flabby uncoordinated mess?

I wonder too about the thoughts of another certain American officer from the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division I once met in Iraq, who was about to be transferred to the battlefront in Afghanistan.

We were on a rooftop in the fiercely contested town of Baquba one afternoon when he told me that he was proud to be part of the “payback for 9/11”.

Just minutes before our conversation started, two car suicide bombers had rammed their vehicles into the walls of the building opposite, leaving the body parts of the drivers and their Iraqi victims strewn across the street. None of these people were part of the 9/11 conspiracy or attacks, I put it to the officer.

“How can you say that?” the officer replied, incredulity in his voice. “Iraqis, Afghans, all ragheads are responsible,” he replied with a racist conceit.

Such thinking was not uncommon among many US soldiers I met in Iraq, or Afghanistan, for whom their reason for being there was still inextricably connected to the events of 9/11.

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That they or their commanding officers understood little else about who they were fighting, or that many of their adversaries had nothing to do with the attack on the US, seemed to matter little. And so, it has been ever since, with few lessons learned even after all these years.

As veteran Middle East correspondent David Hearst so succinctly put it in an article the other day, “it is arrogance and wealth, not shame nor public humiliation, that characterises the lives of the architects of the war on terror today”.

Think Tony Blair feted today like some elder statesman and the “foundation” he now heads up or grand profiteering by senior US politicians Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and many others, and you will see where Hearst is rightly coming from.

If the war on terror led to what Joe Biden described as America’s “forever wars,” then perhaps as the current US administration seeks draw a line under the latter, the former is about to find renewed vigour all over again.

What has become so clear now is that the western policy of direct interventionism did not work. While later interventions to combat Islamist-inspired terrorism in places like the Sahel in West Africa and Syria tried to reinvent it by giving it a different name like “security forces assistance”, they too remain incomplete and struggle in their effectiveness.

IT’S estimated that close to one million people lost their lives directly attributable to the wars on terror. The numbers who will continue to lose their lives as a result of such interventions is likely to be even higher and this is before we even factor in the scale of displacement that has sent millions scrambling for safety and sanctuary across the globe including right here to our own doorstep.

Yes, there have been some successes in combating Jihadist inspired terror, with some networks disrupted, financial resources squeezed, territory retaken as in Iraq from the Islamic State (IS) group. But far and away, the war on terror has been a defeat for the west.

That said, to insist that the conflict is finally over makes no sense. For put quite simply, for as long as Jihadist terrorism poses a transnational security threat, so the war on terror will go on. Personally, I doubt that even the debacle in Afghanistan will mean an end to intervention. The real world, sadly, just doesn’t work that way.

Twenty years on from 9/11 and given the recent events in Afghanistan, we must all pause for thought and take heed of the lessons garnered. The costs of making the same mistakes all over again doesn’t bear thinking about.