''We must continue to stand together''

Op-ed article by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

  • 11 Sep. 2021 -
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  • Last updated: 11 Sep. 2021 12:37

Twenty years ago today, at 8.46am, American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in the start of a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks. That morning, 2,977 innocent people died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. On this twentieth anniversary, we remember and honour those who died and those whose lives were irrevocably changed on that bright September morning.

9/11 witnessed the worst of humanity, but it also brought out the best. From the first responders who ran into the buildings as everyone else was running out, to the medical staff who saved so many lives, to the ordinary men and women who did everything they could to help their fellow citizens.

9/11 was not only an attack on the United States, it was an attack on us all. The victims came from every corner of the NATO alliance and from far beyond it. Within 24 hours of the attacks, NATO Allies invoked Article 5, our mutual defence clause, for the first time. This states than an attack on one ally is an attack on every ally. Soon after, NATO forces were in Afghanistan shoulder to shoulder.

Our engagement in Afghanistan has now come to an end. It has been long and difficult, with a tremendous cost in blood and treasure. Over one million of our men and women in uniform, from North America, Europe and many other partner countries, served there over the past two decades.  Thousands made the ultimate sacrifice, or were wounded, alongside many Afghans, both from the security forces and civilians.

But at the same time, we must not forget what we have achieved together. In 2001, Afghanistan was a safe haven for the al Qaeda terrorists who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and many more around the world. NATO’s mission was to degrade al Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from serving as a launchpad for terrorists that would attack us. Since 9/11, there have been no terrorist attacks against our homelands organised from Afghanistan.

The international community, supported by NATO military forces, also helped create the conditions that allowed Afghans to improve their own lives. A new generation of men and women have grown up able to get an education, take part in the political process, and connect to the rest of the world. Those gains cannot be easily reversed.  

The world is watching Afghanistan and will hold those in power to their commitments. They must prevent safe haven for terrorists, respect human rights, and ensure safe passage for those who seek it as well as humanitarian access. 

The events of the past few weeks are a tragedy for Afghans, and they are heart-breaking for all of us who support them.  Indeed, there are many hard questions we need to ask honestly about our engagement. There are lessons that we must all learn. In NATO, we have launched a thorough assessment. It is too early to pre-judge the results, but to my mind, there are some things that clearly stand out.

Afghanistan will not be the last crisis for which North America and Europe need to act together through NATO. There will always be those who wish to harm us. We saw this on 9/11 and in the many other terrorist attacks since. We also saw it in Iraq and Syria when ISIS took control of a large swathe of territory to establish an extraordinarily brutal terrorist regime. ISIS will never engage in diplomacy.  It was only by NATO Allies and our partners deploying military forces that we were able to liberate the land and people controlled by ISIS. Military action is always the last resort, but sometimes it is the only rational response.

The use of force is not only an essential part of combatting terrorism. Military force is the ultimate guarantor of our freedom. Without a strong and credible military to back it up, diplomacy will fail. During the Cold War, it was NATO’s military might that gave strength to our diplomats and politicians to negotiate with the Soviet Union.

A strong military, combined with the will to use it when necessary, is the essence of our deterrence. Imagine if NATO did not have strong and capable military forces, but our competitors did. We would quickly be unable to guarantee our most cherished values: freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Our armed forces have kept our nations safe for more than seventy years, and they will continue to keep us safe in the decades to come.

There are also times when diplomacy fails and the military option is the only one left. This was the case in the 1990s, when wars in the Western Balkans were only brought to an end through military action. Countless innocent lives were saved by NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then in Kosovo.

The dramatic developments in Afghanistan also demonstrate another clear lesson to me. In a more unpredictable and competitive world, the challenges we face are too great for any country, or any continent, to go it alone.

As we remember all those who died on 9/11, and all those who have sacrificed so much in the years since, we must also remember the solidarity that bound us in those dark hours. Twenty years ago North America and Europe stood together. We must continue to stand together to stay safe today and tomorrow. 


This article was published in Die Welt and newspapers of the LENA group.