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Blowback from an Unholy Alliance

The U.S. and Pakistan After 9/11

by GARY LEUPP

Immediately after 9-11 the U.S. government began barking orders to the world, especially to the Muslim world. Perhaps echoing unconsciously the Christian scripture passages Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23, it proclaimed, "Either you are with us, or with the terrorists." Remember those terrifying days, of omnipresent institutionalized ritualistic grief, anger and mandated unity, when any questioning was met with official indignation, threats, or punishment? When everything was supposed to be so clear? When above all, the national need to attack somebody—some Muslims—was supposed to be obvious, and the attack on Afghanistan in particular framed as common sense?

In Afghanistan, the Taliban was told that Washington would not distinguish between terrorists and the regimes that harbor them. The Taliban was of course one of the fundamentalist Islamist groups emerging from the long U.S. effort (1979-93) to topple the Soviet-supported secular regime. The Taliban in power from 1996 had netted some aid from a Washington deeply interested in Afghan oil pipeline construction, and also received aid and diplomatic support from Pakistan. Pakistan’s CIA (the Inter-Service Intelligence or ISI) had helped create the Taliban in order (as Benazir Bhutto later explained) to secure the trade route into Central Asia.

The Taliban, then with U.S. aid suppressing opium poppy production with extraordinary success, and manifesting no special hostility towards Washington, was ordered to hand over 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Ladin. But Pashtun culture (far more than most cultures) mandates that guests receive hospitality and protection, and bin Ladin, a periodic visitor from 1984 and permanent resident since 1996, was no ordinary guest. He had raised or supplied from his personal funds millions of dollars for the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen (which one must always emphasize was supported by him as well as the U.S.), and fought against the secular "socialist" Afghan regime in the name of Islam. Taliban leader Mullah Omar could not simply turn him over to the Americans and maintain any credibility with his own social base. On the other hand, the Taliban did not wish to provoke an invasion. So the Afghans asked for evidence of bin Ladin’s complicity in the attacks. Washington treated the request as absurd. The Afghans offered to turn bin Ladin over to an international court of Islamic jurists. The U.S. reiterated its demand that bin Ladin be transferred to American authorities immediately, knowing this was not going to happen and that it would thus have a popularly accepted casus belli.

Meanwhile Pakistan’s dictator-president Gen. Pervez Musharraf was told by the U.S. State Department that Pakistan must cut ties to the Taliban. "Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age," he was told by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, through his deputy Richard Armitage, if he was unwilling to cooperate in the destruction of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Musharraf was also ordered to host U.S. troops and prevent anti-U.S. demonstrations in his country. Briefly Pakistan protested that it might be better to preserve diplomatic ties with the Taliban government, in order to influence it to cooperate with the U.S. which (one must repeat) had not hitherto had an unfriendly relationship with the U.S. But caving into the U.S. diktat, angering ISI officers deeply invested in Taliban support, risking a coup or assassination, Musharraf complied with U.S. demands. He was rewarded with the removal of U.S. sanctions imposed after Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, and promises of massive aid as the U.S. prepared to bomb Afghanistan, topple the Talibs and impose following their downfall a government of Afghans willing to work with Washington. This of course turned out to be a government dominated by the Northern Alliance, a collection of non-Pashtuns including Uzbek and Tajik warlords hostile to Pakistan and supported by India and Iran.

The U.S. bombed; the Taliban fell, for the most part retreating to ancestral villages and lying low, monitoring the situation, seeking opportunities for resurgence. Few Americans at the time questioned the Bush administration’s ready conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but the two were and are appreciably different. Al-Qaeda is a mostly Arab but multinational global network of Islamists hostile to the U.S. and its policies towards the Muslim world, growing in strength due to the continuation of those policies; the Taliban is a primarily Pashtun organization reflecting traditional Afghan Muslim fundamentalist values and fiercely opposed to foreign domination. The former is sophisticated, headed by well-educated men; the latter is largely illiterate, headed by clerics learned only in Islamic literature. The former wants to attack multiple targets to foment a generalized confrontation between the West and Islam; the latter wants to mind its own house and maintain Afghan traditions with all their xenophobic, medieval, patriarchal, misogynistic, anti-intellectual appeal.

A mix of Taliban militants and al-Qaeda forces resisted the U.S. invasion; hundreds at least escaped into Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province. Having driven bin Ladin and his followers out of Afghanistan, the U.S. declared a great victory and without skipping a beat moved on to invade and occupy Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9-11. The latter crime inevitably produced outrage globally, but particularly in Muslim countries like Pakistan, where the prestige of bin Ladin, already high in 2001, has soared ever since. (A recent poll showed his approval rating at 46%, compared to Musharraf’s 38% and Bush’s 9%.)

Preoccupied with establishing an empire, U.S. leaders lost interest in al-Qaeda. Indeed in March 2002 President Bush referring to bin Ladin declared, "I truly am not that concerned about him." As for the al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan (whose very existence close U.S. ally Musharraf denied), they were Pakistan’s problem. The U.S. had unleashed a huge problem on the Pakistani state by invading its neighbor, toppling the Afghan government, and forcing al-Qaeda to relocate into Pakistan where sympathetic tribesmen (who have always resisted firm incorporation into the state) offered them safe haven. Pashtuns straddle the boundary of the two countries; Pakistani Pashtuns are largely sympathetic to the Taliban, and now a Pakistani Taliban is growing in strength in the Taliban and elsewhere.

Thus the "good war" in Afghanistan preceding the generally discredited war-based-on-lies in Iraq was in fact a very bad war so far as Pakistan was concerned. It brought Afghanistan a new warlord government, in which opium is again the chief commercial crop, prettified by a "democratic" election and the appointment of a longtime CIA contact, Hamid Karzai as president and de facto mayor or Kabul. It is increasingly challenged by the recrudescent Taliban and new recruits who have regained control of much of the south. Karzai from his weak position keeps offering them peace talks, which they reject, demanding the invaders leave before any negotiations.

For the U.S. the "good war" has meant 474 soldiers dead (116 so far this year); "coalition" dead have increased every year since 2003 and almost as many European troops have died during the last two years as Americans. Support for the Afghan mission has declined in Europe as its relevance to "counter-terrorism" becomes increasingly unclear and its character as an unwinnable counterinsurgency effort becomes more apparent.

The war in Afghanistan saddled Musharraf with a mounting Islamist rebellion in the Swat Valley and elsewhere; grave dissatisfaction within the military at the unprecedented deployment in the frontier provinces (where troops have performed poorly and unenthusiastically against Islamists); and personal unpopularity related both to his ties to the U.S. and to his abuses of power. Adding to his woes, the U.S. military struck targets within his country (without his consent, he claims), and threatened to take further action against Taliban or al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan. Then the Pakistani Chief Justice opposed his bid to run for president again, and needed to be arrested, causing a nasty political crisis. In an embarrassment to Musharraf the Supreme Court ordered the justice’s release. In the meantime supporters of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif clamored for their return.

The natural thing for a beleaguered strongman to do in such circumstances would be to declare a state of emergency and assume emergency powers. But the U.S. State Department told him no, don’t do that, let Bhutto come back, work out some accommodation with her. Let the two of you share power and erect an anti-terrorist united front. So Musharraf hesitated until November, when he did indeed declare a state of emergency, meeting with Washington’s public disapproval. The U.S. threatened to cut off some non-military aid if he didn’t quickly lift martial law and hold elections in which Bhutto might compete. Musharraf negotiated with Bhutto, trading cancellation of corruption charges against her for his agreement to respect the constitutional provision that disallowed him to be both president and military officer at the same time.

Quite possibly Musharraf was thinking, "These people, who have already done so much to destabilize Pakistan, now want to destabilize it further by forcing me into this." But he did, and Bhutto got killed, maybe by his people (cui bono?), maybe by al-Qaeda, maybe by homegrown Islamists angered by Bhutto’s Washington ties, which are even more intimate than Musharraf’s.

Maybe Musharraf will now cancel the election. Maybe he will hold it, arranging to win big. Either way, Washington analysts agree his position is weakened by the assassination. Pakistan, more or less stable as of 2001, has in the interval been knocked off balance by U.S. action in the region. Told it must be for or against the U.S., it was obliged to obey, with grim results.

Unprecedented militant Islamism. Unprecedented support for bin Ladin and al-Qaeda. Unprecedented support for the Taliban. Unprecedented Taliban-like attacks on Buddhist monuments, parts of Pakistan’s cultural heritage. The assassination of a popular pro-Western political figure on whom the U.S. State Department had placed its bets. Anti-Musharraf rioting in the wake of the assassination. Dire consequences indeed of Musharraf’s alliance.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu