NEW YORK--Give George W. Bush some credit. True, it's for the wrong reasons and it's half a decade late, but he's finally going after one of the nations behind 9/11. Well, not exactly. He's just gently razzing its ruler. Still: you razz, boy!
After five years of war against countries that didn't threaten us, the United States has finally moved the government of Pakistan from the "valuable ally in the war on terrorists" column to one labeled more succinctly, and more accurately: "terrorists."
"Absolutely," Bush replied when a reporter asked him whether he would order a U.S. incursion into Pakistan if he learned that Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders were there. "We would take the action necessary to bring them to justice," the president said.
Like so much of what Bush says, it wasn't absolutely true. Bin Laden was in Pakistan on 9/11, apparently receiving treatment for his bum kidneys as an honored guest of the Pakistani military government. By all accounts, he's been there ever since. Yet Bush hasn't lifted a finger to nail him.
Bush knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan during the first six months after 9/11, when the U.S. dropped 24,000 bombs and 248,000 cluster "bomblets" on Afghanistan, blowing more than 20,000 innocent Afghans to bits. He has since sent thousands of U.S. troops, Allied soldiers and private mercenaries, and at least 100,000 civilians, to sandy graves in Iraq--knowing that bin Laden was in Pakistan the whole time.
But hey, better late than never.
Phone lines and e-mail accounts belonging to Central and South Asia policy geeks hummed during the hours and days after 9/11. "Any sane person views 9/11 as a law enforcement matter," a leading expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan told me at the time. "But if the U.S. chooses the path of military action, there's only one logical country to attack: Pakistan."
That's where my money was. After all, 9/11 was a three-way joint venture among Egypt, which supplied the hijackers, Saudi Arabia, which financed their training, and Pakistan, which hosted al-Qaeda and its affiliated madrassas and jihadi training camps. There was no need to invade Egypt because, as the second luckiest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel, its economy and dictatorial regime were totally dependent on us. Why buy when you can rent for less? A similar argument could be made, and I was sure was being made, for taking out Saudi Arabia's corrupt royal family--who would vanish in a quick, bloody implosion were we to stop propping it up with fancy military hardware.
Pakistan, on the other hand, was a clear and present danger to regional and global stability, and thus, U.S. business, and thus, U.S. interests. In the fall of 1999, a pro-Islamist general, Pervez Musharraf, had formed an alliance with militant jihadis to stage a coup d'état against his democratically elected predecessor. He had invited the Taliban, the Pakistani-financed rulers of neighboring Afghanistan, into Pakistan to fight India over disputed Kashmir province. Musharraf's Pakistan had the ultimate WMD, nukes--and was threatening to use them against India.
Although al-Qaeda's operations were based in Pakistan, the group also maintained some camps and personnel in southern Afghanistan. But they relied on financing and training from Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Invade Pakistan and you'd get Afghanistan for free.
If you'd already decided to go berzerker military in reaction to 9/11, attacking Pakistan made sense. In one fell swoop, occupying Pakistan would neutralize the world's most dangerous nuclear power, deprive China of its important strategic partner and gateway into South Asia, and eliminate the region's primary exporter of jihadis. Best of all, deposing the leader of an unconstitutional junta might help spread democracy--provided that we then restored deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was rotting in one of Musharraf's squalid prisons.
Similar thoughts were rattling around the Bushies' brains after 9/11. General Musharraf recently revealed that he got a "very rude" call from Richard Armitage, Bush's deputy secretary of state at the time and a fiery neoconservative. "Be prepared to be bombed," Musharraf quotes Armitage. "Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age."
Armitage and the White House deny Musharraf's story, but get real. It sure sounds like something a Bushie might have said, especially just 10 days after 9/11. If you have to choose whom to believe--a high-ranking official in the Bush Administration who participated in the treasonous unmasking of a CIA agent and kept quiet about it for years, or the military dictator of Pakistan--you've got to go with the dictator.
Musharraf says he had no choice but to cave in to U.S. demands for official cooperation and his country's diplomatic distancing from the Taliban. "One has to think and take actions in the interest of the nation," he commented mournfully.
The high-handed and oafish way that Armitage talked to the leader of another nation, emboldened by the certitude of the mighty over the weak, is almost enough to make one feel sorry for Musharraf. Fortunately for the tin-pot general, his new American overlords didn't ask a whole lot of him.
Bush demanded that Musharraf end "direct logistical support" for bin Laden, not that he be turned over. Rather than a full-fledged military base, he obtained the right to fly planes and missiles across Pakistani airspace into Afghanistan. Musharraf refused outright Bush's request for government censorship of the Pakistani press. "If somebody's expressing views, we cannot curb the expression of views," he said.
It's nice to know the First Amendment lives on, albeit nine time zones away in a dictatorship.
Why didn't Bush go after Pakistan? Only the Bushies know for sure, and they're not telling, and no one should believe them if they break their silence. One possibility is that the State Department, still addicted to its Cold War policy of playing off regional powers against one another in order to maximize America's economic and military influence, believed it more important to use Pakistan as a strategic counterweight against a modernizing and ascendant India than to avenge 9/11 or prevent another attack.
There may also have been a desire to placate Pakistan's ally China, which can veto U.S. initiatives in the U.S. Security Council. And Musharraf was a darling of the globalizing financiers of the International Monetary Fund. One of his first moves after seizing power was to cancel anti-poverty programs launched by the former democratic government. Businessmen prefer tyranny.
Former Ambassador Peter Thomsen, special envoy to Afghanistan during the first Bush Administration, says that Pakistan is "playing fireman and arsonist as it tries to have it both ways in Afghanistan [where continues to finance and arm Taliban forces in their war against the U.S. puppet government] and in the war on terror. The Pakistani military intelligence and the generals know exactly where he (bin Laden) is and they could inform us and we could do the job."
Nevertheless, Musharraf continues to deny the obvious. "Where's Osama bin Laden?" Jon Stewart asked him. "I don't know," replied the dictator. "You know where he is? You lead on, we'll follow you."
The more the "war on terror" changes, the more it stays the same.