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Global Perspective: Japan should reflect, learn from history's dark legacy in post-9/11 era

An advance Ground Self-Defense Force team arrives in Samawah, southern Iraq, to conduct humanitarian and reconstruction support activities, as locals and reporters look on, in front of the Dutch military camp in the city on Feb. 8, 2004. (Mainichi/Koichiro Iwashita)

By Keiko Sakai, Professor, Chiba University

    This September, I saw very few articles on the 9/11 attacks of 2001 in the Japanese press; in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, there was just one.

    This made me curious to know when the number of articles and features on 9/11 dropped, and my research found that it has been dramatically decreasing since 2013. Last year was an exception because of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, where the attacks originated, and the resurgence of the Taliban regime there, but they have disappeared almost completely since the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017.

    Whenever there was a similar violent incident, such as the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, 9/11 did resurface in press reports by association, but on other occasions articles on the incident tended to focus on the bereaved families of the victims or point out the resonance with the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

    Some of these stories were sympathetic to the psychological trauma of the bereaved families, but they included almost no reflection on 9/11 itself, its political significance and the consequences of Japan's policies. Similarly, few articles on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021 discussed Japan's role in that outcome in its entirety, while they delved into policy failures that brought about the departure.

    The Japanese government was deeply involved in reactions to 9/11 and the so-called "war on terror" that followed. Tokyo provided logistical support to U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001, and two years later, after the war in Iraq, it deployed Ground Self-Defense Forces troops for more than two and a half years. In each case, the government made a full commitment in cooperation with Washington, but what effect this had on the local society has not yet been fully verified.

    Japanese support was extraordinary not only in the security aspect, but also in the economic sphere. In Afghanistan alone, Tokyo paid more than 700 billion yen, or approximately 4.7 billion dollars, for its reconstruction, and for Iraq, it picked up a 5-billion-dollar tab for postwar assistance and even poured in 600 million dollars in emergency humanitarian aid to support victims of the Islamic State extremist group.

    But was the fortune spent on those countries worth it? In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has returned to power, and the Japanese assistance may be all but lost. In the field of education, Tokyo has invited nearly 1,400 students to Japan to train them to become leaders of the post-Taliban Afghanistan. However, with the old regime's resurgence, many of the youngsters have been deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, forced out of their jobs, have faced persecution or have been driven out of their homeland as refugees.

    Iraq faces a tough situation, too. It fell into a state of civil war in 2006, and although security has finally stabilized in recent years, the situation is not such that Japanese companies, which had hoped to expand into Iraq due to reconstruction demand, can operate freely there.

    Has Japan ever seriously looked back on the "war on terror" in which it has spent so much money and effort? In the U.K., an independent inquiry announced in 2009 by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown produced the Chilcot Report, as it is commonly called. The report, published in 2016, revealed the problems associated with the start of the war in Iraq. In the U.S., the Washington Post's coverage that exposed intelligence cover-up in Afghanistan was published in 2019 (a Japanese translation was published by Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, as the "Afghanistan Papers.").

    What about Japan? How does Japan sum up its involvement in the "post-9/11" era over the past 20 years and how does it plan to apply the lessons learned to its future policies? A senior scholar in the field of international politics, who is also deeply involved in policy implementation, recently pointed out, "Japan is a country that does not look back on the big picture," adding, "Japan is only good at fine-tuning."

    When a situation arises that shakes international politics beyond the point of fine-tuning, it is impossible to succeed in the next phase without considering past failures and experiences. But before we learn from our mistakes, Japanese society, including the media, is dismissing 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq as exceptions in the past and dumping them into oblivion.

    The danger of not reviewing the past and not rethinking policies is not limited to the aftermath of 9/11. The 2001 attacks have their roots in a dark past stemming from the Cold-War security arrangements made by the U.S. and other Western nations to counter the Soviet Union.

    In 1979, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States, with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, recruited Muslim volunteers to fight the communist troops which occupied Afghanistan. Islam, which abhors communism as atheism, was of great use to the U.S. in its policy toward the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia, as a custodian of two holy mosques for Muslims, promoted proselytization throughout the world, combining Islam, aid and anti-communist policies for its goals.

    The same was done in Africa. Working with France and the U.S., Saudi Arabia poured its oil-backed wealth into the Cold War frontlines of Angola, Sudan and Somalia. As a result, Angola suffered from a civil war between pro-Soviet and pro-U.S. factions for more than a quarter century, while in Sudan and Somalia, dictatorial regimes kept power over the years.

    In Palestine, Hamas, an Islamic organization that now controls the Gaza Strip, was originally supported by Israel that had wanted to counter leftist nationalist organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization.

    In other words, in the major battle of the Cold War, the West used "religion" for anti-communist purposes. As a result, some of the mobilized Muslim volunteers became al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

    Reflections on 9/11 must trace back such opportunistic policies of the Cold War era. The U.S. used Islam without thinking very carefully about the consequences and suffered a bitter blowback in the form of 9/11. The same is true of Saudi Arabia, which gave birth to bin Laden, the former supreme leader of al-Qaeda.

    Japan, too, is not unaffected by the global trend of suffering from the dark legacy of the use of religion as an anti-communist policy during the Cold War.

    Nevertheless, the assumption that Japan does not need a comprehensive lookback into past failures and it is sufficient to fine-tune its policies on the fly is perhaps based on a failure to recognize that the challenges it faces are part of a larger picture affecting international politics. People with such an assumption think that Japan got involved with Afghanistan only because the country happened to be following U.S. footsteps. They also assume that some politicians' connection with an organization with the word "Shokyo" (victory over communism) in its name, a group associated with the controversial Unification Church, is a mere coincidence, and do not see a link with the West's Cold War exploitation of religion for anti-communism causes. For them, these are not their own problems, and they evade the responsibility that comes with being involved.

    The enmity rooted in the Cold War and the remnants of the war on terror are spread across the globe, and Japan is standing among the smoldering rubbles of the epic battle. Only when Japan realizes this can it begin to address the dark legacy of history, which the entire world shares.

    Profile: Keiko Sakai

    A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Sakai earned her Ph.D. in area studies from Kyoto University. After working as a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies and as a researcher attache at the Embassy of Japan in Iraq, she then taught at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies as a professor, and assumed her current position in 2012. A specialist in Middle Eastern politics and Iraq affairs, she is the recipient of the Asia Pacific Prize Grand Prize in 2003, and was the chairperson of the Japan Association of International Relations from 2012 to 2014.

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