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The unpublished memos that warned Blair against military action after 9/11

A former Labour minister admits the briefing document was ‘bang to rights’ and ‘should have been acted on’

Adam Bychawski Martin Williams
10 September 2021, 3.40pm
Tony Blair and George W. Bush at the White House, 17 May 2007, during their last joint press conference | Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In the days after 9/11, the Bush administration was sabre-rattling, and the prospect of a war in Afghanistan looked ever more likely.

But in the UK, Tony Blair was warned not to support US military action, according to a 20-year-old briefing published for the first time by openDemocracy.

The five-page document, written in the immediate aftermath of the al-Qaida attacks, warned that invading Afghanistan would be “counterproductive” and would be “precisely what the group wants”.

The briefing was penned by an unofficial policy adviser, Paul Rogers, who had been encouraged by Downing Street to write briefings for Blair’s government.

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The memo was sent six days after 9/11, and shortly before President Bush declared his “war on terror”. Copies were also sent to 12 other senior ministers, including the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw.

One of the former ministers who received the briefing two decades ago today admitted that it had been “full of foresight and should have been acted on”.

Military action would be counterproductive

The briefing said: “Vigorous military action by the US, on its own or in coalition, will be counterproductive... It is particularly important for states close to the United States to endeavour to influence the Bush administration away from military action.

“If the US takes any such action it will be precisely what the group wants. [It will] weaken the position of the more moderate elements of the Kabul regime… [and] enable the group to gain more support and recruits.”

Rogers, who wrote the memo, is emeritus professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and a regular contributor to openDemocracy.

Rogers had previously provided briefings for the Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s. David Miliband, the director of No.10’s policy unit at the time, agreed that these should continue when Tony Blair came into office in 1997. Between then and 2010, Rogers had multiple meetings with senior officials in No.10 and his memos were regularly circulated among ministers.

However, the briefings were written in an unofficial capacity, and Rogers viewed himself as an outsider.

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The former Labour minister Denis MacShane, who was among the ministers to receive Rogers’ briefing in the wake of 9/11, said today that he had “got it bang to right”.

MacShane said he was not involved in the UK’s response to 9/11, but that emotions were high and there was a shared desire to stop the Taliban from any further attacks.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, said the briefing was a “remarkably well informed and rapid analysis of the attack on the Twin Towers.

“Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Afghans died at the hands of the fighting men and the foreigners. They have paid the highest price for the current mess. Some of us nevertheless try to saddle them with the blame. That is deeply unattractive. We are all responsible.”

Writing for openDemocracy today, Rogers said: “I doubt if Blair himself would have seen it, but at least six people in his team would have (including his private secretary for foreign affairs), as they got their own, individually marked printed copies.”

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