Even in a world often described as complex, globalised and interconnected, distance can be a shield.
Contrary to received wisdom, 9/11 was not simply made possible by terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan. There was not a straight line from the wastes of Central Asia to mass murder in New York. 9/11 depended on critical spaces in the first world, such as a flight school in Florida and an operational base in Hamburg. But for breakdowns in basic law enforcement and homeland security, it could have been averted. As Marc Sageman argues, neo-jihadi terrorism – even the catastrophic and long-range variety – is effectively curtailed by international police work, border control, the building of databases and intelligence sharing, airport security and support for regional powers like Pakistan. There may be a ‘chain of terror’ between the mountains of Pakistan to Britain’s streets, but it can be disrupted at many points between.
This point is also made well by Rory Stewart:
Sir John Lawrence, the new viceroy, persuaded Lord Derby’s government that Afghanistan was less important than it appeared, that our resources were limited, and that we had other more pressing priorities. Here, in a civil service minute of 1867 (I found this in Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows), he imagines what would happen if the Russians tried to invade:In that case let them undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where, in many places, every mile can be converted into a defensible position; then they will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend, toil-worn, with an exhausted infantry, a broken-down cavalry, and a defective artillery.