ONE DAY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
September 11, 2001, was an uneventful day in Pakistan, at least while the sun was high. That evening I was in Karachi, inspecting work at the beautiful gardens of the mausoleum of our founder Quaide-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. I was happy to be in the city I love. Little did I know that on the other side of the globe, yet another event involving aircraft was about to alter the course of my life, and the course of Pakistan. Little did I know that we were about to be thrust into the front line of yet another war, a war against shadows.
Nearly two years earlier, at the start of my hijacking crisis, my military secretary had whispered in my ear that the pilot of my flight wanted me in the cockpit. Now he came up to me again and whispered: an aircraft had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I had been familiar with the World Trade Center ever since terrorists had tried to blow it up in 1993. They had done considerable damage and six people were killed. One of the masterminds of that attack, Ramzi Yousef, had fled to Pakistan and had been arrested by our security service in 1995.
At first, I dismissed the news report as an accident involving what I thought must have been a light private aircraft. I continued with my inspection. But at the back of my mind there was the nagging thought that this had to be a most peculiar accident. Either the pilot had to be utterly inept to have hit such a tall building, or the plane had to be so totally out of control that it couldn’t be prevented from hitting the tower.
When I returned home, I went directly into a meeting with Karachi’s corps commander. We were deeply engrossed in discussion when my military secretary slipped into the room and started fiddling with the television set.
“What is the urgency?” I asked, a bit irritated.
“Please watch what’s on television, sir,” he said.
He had found CNN. I could not believe what I saw Smoke was billowing out of both towers of the World Trade Center. People were jumping out of windows. There was sheer panic, utter chaos. It was not a light private aircraft that had been involved but two fuel-laden commercial Boeings full of passengers. The planes had been hijacked and deliberately crashed into the twin towers. This could hardly be an accident-it had to be a deliberate, brazen act of terrorism. I learned that two other aircraft had also been hijacked-one had hit the Pentagon; another had gone down in a field in Pennsylvania. Commentators at the time said that second one had been heading for the White House. This was war.
We were still glued to the television when we saw one tower go down, and a few minutes later the second. It was unbelievable. Smoke from burning aircraft fuel and the dust and debris from the largest buildings in the world made the scene look like a nuclear explosion.
The enormity of the event was palpable. The world’s most powerful country had been attacked on its own soil, with its own aircraft used as missiles. This was a great tragedy, and a great blow to the ego of the superpower. America was sure to react violently, like a wounded bear. If the perpetrator turned out to be al Qaeda, then that wounded bear would come charging straight toward us. Al Qaeda was based in neigh-boring Afghanistan under the protection of those international pariahs, the Taliban. Not only that: we were the only country maintaining diplomatic relations with the Taliban and their leader, Mullah Omar. September 11 marked an irrevocable turn from the past into an unknown future. The world would never be the same.
I went to the Governor House. The foreign office advised me to give a statement. I wrote one quickly and said on national television that we condemned this vile act, that we were against all forms of terrorism and stood with America at this appalling time, and that we would assist it in any way we could.
The next morning I was chairing an important meeting at the Governor’s House when my military secretary told me that the U.S. secretary of state, General Colin Powell, was on the phone. I said I would call back later, but he insisted that I come out of the meeting and take the call. Powell was quite candid: “You are either with us or against us.” I took this as a blatant ultimatum. However, contrary to some published reports, that conversation did not get into specifics. I told him that we were with the United States against terrorism, having suffered from it for years, and would fight along with his country against it. We did not negotiate anything. I had time to think through exactly what might hap-pen next.
When I was back in Islamabad the next day, our director general of Inter Services Intelligence, who happened to be in Washington, told me on the phone about his meeting with the U.S. deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. In what has to be the most undiplomatic statement ever made, Armitage added to what Colin Powell had said to me and told the director general not only that we had to decide whether we were with America or with the terrorists, but that if we chose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age. This was a shockingly barefaced threat, but it was obvious that the United States had decided to hit back, and hit back hard.
I made a dispassionate, military-style analysis of our options, weighing the pros and cons. Emotion is all very well in drawing rooms, newspaper editorials, and movies, but it cannot be relied on for decisions like this. Underlying any leader’s analysis has to be a keen awareness that on his decision hangs the fate of millions of people and the future of his country. It is at times like these that the leader is confronted by his acute loneliness. He may listen to any amount of advice he chooses, but at the end of the day the decision has to be his alone. He realizes then that the buck really stops with him-this is no facile cliche.
My decision was based on the well-being of my people and the best interests of my country-Pakistan always comes first. I war-gamed the United States as an adversary. There would be a violent and angry reaction if we didn’t support the United States. Thus the question was: if we do not join them, can we confront them and withstand the onslaught? The answer was no, we could not, on three counts.
First was our military weakness as compared with the strength of the United States. Our military forces would be destroyed.
Second was our economic weakness. We had no oil, and we did not have the capacity to sustain our economy in the face of an attack by the United States.
Third, and worst of all, was our social weakness. We lack the homogeneity to galvanize the entire nation into an active confrontation. We could not endure a military confrontation with the United States from any point of view.
I also analyzed our national interest. First, India had already tried to step in by offering its bases to the United States. If we did not join the United States, it would accept India’s offer. at would happen then? India would gain a golden opportunity with regard to Kashmir. The Indians might be tempted to undertake a limited offensive there; or, more likely, they would work with the United States and the United Nations to turn the present situation into a permanent status quo. The United States would certainly have obliged.
A Second, the security of our strategic assets would be jeopardized. We did not want to lose or damage the military parity that we had achieved with India by becoming a nuclear weapons state. It is no secret that the United States has never been comfortable with a Muslim country acquiring nuclear weapons, and the Americans undoubtedly would have taken the opportunity of an invasion to destroy such weapons. And India, needless to say, would have loved to assist the United States to the hilt.
Third, our economic infrastructure, built over half a century, would have been decimated.
The ultimate question that confronted me was whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taliban. Were they worth committing suicide over? The answer was a resounding no. It is true that we had assisted in the rise of the Taliban after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, which was then callously abandoned by the United States. For a while, at the embryonic stage, even the United States had approved of the Taliban. We had hoped that the Taliban, driven by religious zeal based on the true principles of Islam, would bring unity and peace to a devastated country. But they were fired by a misplaced messianic zeal inculcated in them by half-baked, obscurantist clerics, a zeal that was contrary to the moderate, tolerant, progressive spirit of Islam of the majority of the Pakistani people.
After the Taliban came to power, we lost much of the leverage we had had with them. The peace that they brought to Afghanistan was the peace of the graveyard. Nevertheless, we still supported them, for geostrategic reasons. If we had broken with them, that would have created a new enemy on our western border, or a vacuum of power there into which might have stepped the Northern Alliance, comprising anti-Pakistan elements. The Northern Alliance was supported by Russia, India, and Iran. Now we were no longer constrained by these concerns. We had new, more deadly ones. Now we could detach from the Taliban. In any case, they did not stand a chance. Why should we put our national interest on the line for a primitive regime that would be defeated?
On the other hand, the benefits of supporting the United States were many. First, we would be able to eliminate extremism from our society and flush out the foreign terrorists in our midst. We could not do this alone; we needed the technical and financial support of the United States to be able to find and defeat these terrorists. We had been victims of terrorism by the Taliban and al Qaeda and their associated groups for years. Earlier Pakistani governments had been hesitant about taking on the militant religious groups that were spreading extremism and fanaticism in our country. General Zia had openly courted them for political support, and Nawaz Sharif was in the process of setting himself up as “commander of the faithful,” sort of a national imam. For my part, I have always been a moderate Muslim, never comfortable with the rhetoric or the ways of the extremists. I moved against them when I banned a number of extremist religious organizations in February 2001 because they were involved in sectarian militancy. But now here was a chance to confront them more boldly and openly. Second, even though being a frontline state fighting terrorism would deter foreign investment, there were certain obvious economic advantages, like loosening the stranglehold of our debt and lifting economic sanctions. Third, after being an outcast nation following our nuclear tests, we would come to center stage.
at of the domestic reaction? The mullahs would certainly oppose joining the United States and would come out into the streets. There would be an adverse reaction, too, in the North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, for obvious reasons. Sindh, specially Karachi, and Balochistan would be neutral or lukewarm. But what of the Pun-jab, which is the heart of Pakistan? Would it react negatively? I thought that by and large it would not. If I could make the Punjabis understand why I went with the United States, they would understand me-why unnecessarily take on a superpower, and for what? The Punjabis are a very pragmatic people. As for Karachi, which has many seminaries, some of which are run by extremists from the Frontier Province, there certainly would be some street protests. But the bulk of Karachi’s people would not support it. So my considered opinion, based on the ethos of the country and the inclinations of the people I knew so well, was that there would be no unbearable reaction or street protests.
This was a ruthless analysis, deliberately devoid of emotion, which I made for the sake of my country. Richard Armitage’s undiplomatic language, regrettable as it was, had nothing to do with my decision. The United States would do what it had to do in its national interest, and we would do what we had to in ours. Self-interest and self-preservation were the basis of this decision. Needless to say, though, I felt very frustrated by Armitage’s remarks. It goes against the grain of a soldier not to be able to tell anyone giving him an ultimatum to go forth and multiply, or words to that effect. I have to say, though, that later I found Armitage to be a wonderful person and a good friend of Pakistan.
On September 13, 2001, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, brought me a set of seven demands. These demands had also been communicated to our foreign office by the U.S. State Department through what is called a non-paper.
Stop al Qaeda operatives at your borders, intercept arms shipments through Pakistan, and end all logistical support for Bin Laden.
Provide the United States with blanket overflight and landing rights to conduct Al necessary military and intelligence operations.
Provide territorial access to the United States and allied military
intelligence as needed, and other personnel to conduct all necessary operations against the perpetrators of terrorism and those that harbor them, including the use of Pakistan’s naval ports, air bases, and strategic locations on borders.
Provide the United States immediately with intelligence, immigration information and databases, and internal security information, to help prevent and respond to terrorist acts perpetrated against the United States, its friends, or its allies.
Continue to publicly condemn the terrorist acts of September 11 and any other terrorist acts against the United States or its friends and allies, and curb all domestic expressions of support [for terrorism] against the United States, its friends, or its allies.
Cut off all shipments of fuel to the Taliban and any other items and recruits, including volunteers en route to Afghanistan, who can be used in a military offensive capacity or to abet a terrorist threat.
Should the evidence strongly implicate Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan and should Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to harbor him and his network, Pakistan will break diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, end support for the Taliban, and assist the United States in the afore-mentioned ways to destroy Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
Some of these demands were ludicrous, like “curb all domestic expressions of support [for terrorism] against the United States, its friends, and its allies.” Such a demand depends on the interpretation of what constitutes verbal support for terrorism and on the limits of dissent and freedom of expression. I found the expression “Should the evidence strongly implicate Osama bin Laden and the A Qaeda network in Afghanistan . . .” self-contradictory, because if the United States was still searching for evidence, how could it be so sure that “Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan” were the perpetrators of 9/11? I also thought that asking us to break off diplomatic relations with Afghanistan if it continued to harbor Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda was not realistic, because not only would the United States need us to have access to Afghanistan, at least until the Taliban fell, but such decisions are the internal affair of a country and cannot be dictated by anyone. But there was no point in arguing over what seemed to be a hurriedly drafted document. We had no problem with curbing terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. We had been itching to do so before the United States became its victim.
We just could not accept demands two and three. How could we allow the United States “blanket overflight and landing rights” without jeopardizing our strategic assets? I offered only a narrow flight corridor that was far from any sensitive areas. Neither could we give the United States “use of Pakistan’s naval ports, air bases, and strategic locations on borders.” We refused to give any naval ports or fighter aircraft bases. We allowed the United States only two bases-Shamsi in Balochistan and Jacobabad in Sindh-and only for logistics and aircraft recovery. No attack could be launched from there. We gave no “blanket permission” for anything.
The rest of the demands we could live with. I am happy that the U.S. government accepted our counterproposal without any fuss. I am shocked at the aspersion being cast on me: that I readily accepted all preconditions of the United States during the telephone call from Colin Powell. He did not give any conditions to me. These were brought by the U.S. ambassador on the third day.
Having made my decision, I took it to the cabinet. As expected, there was some concern from the ministers that they had not been consulted. Doubts were also expressed in the corps commanders’ meeting that followed. In both meetings I went over my analysis in detail and explained how and why I had come to this decision. I answered every question until all doubts were removed and everyone was on board. I then went on national radio and television on September 19 to explain my decision to the people. As I had thought, the reaction was limited and controllable.
Then I began meeting with a cross section of society. Between September 18 and October 3, I met with intellectuals, top editors, leading columnists, academics, tribal chiefs, students, and the leaders of labor unions. On October 18, I also met a delegation from China and discussed the decision with them. Then I went to army garrisons all over the country and talked to the soldiers. Everyone was rightly concerned that if Afghanistan was bombed, many innocent Muslim lives would be lost. I allayed this fear by saying that first we would try to persuade Mullah Omar to make Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants leave Afghanistan; that way, Afghanistan could avoid any military strike by the United States.
It all came down to two men: Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.