When Osama bin Laden had his first go at the World Trade Center in 1993, his people had put cyanide gas next to the fertilizer bomb. Unfortunately, he got his chemistry wrong and the bomb burnt the gas. Later, the U.S. discovered a plan by Bin Ladin’s outfit to destroy twelve U.S. airliners. The U.S. has eight years of warnings that Bin Ladin intended to commit massive terror strikes against the U.S. And yet, after the USS Cole bombing last year, the U.S. took no action. The missile strikes in Afghanistan after the embassy bombings in 1998 were a demonstration of the sole superpower’s helplessness. The U.S. persistently failed to use many instruments available to it to get at Bin Ladin and his sanctuary. The persistent dithering on Bin Ladin has now exacted a price.
Bin Ladin has been called a “blowback” of American Cold War policy since the CIA originally trained him. This is superficial, he is blowback from U.S. policies that continued until the first plane struck the World Trade Center. What has created the Bin Ladin phenomenon is not the U.S. support for Israel or the deadly sanctions against Iraq. Rather it is the rise of a new theology of wide and unending jihad among extremists in Arab countries as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan emerged as a host of the jihad cult in the early nineties. It played a double game between Americans and those who would blow up Americans. Therefore it got many chances to aid U.S. counter-terrorism policy. In 1994, Pakistan was able to expand its “strategic depth” by imposing the Taliban upon Afghanistan. Pakistan educated trained the Taliban in its madarssas, and sent its soldiers and citizens to fight with them to take over Afghanistan. Since then, Pakistan has continuously supported the Taliban materially and diplomatically. The latter have performed key services in return.
Since the Talibanization of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been using it as a base area for its “jihad” in Kashmir. In 1994, when the U.S. threatened to brand Pakistan as a terrorist state, the latter switched many militant training bases into Afghanistan. That was enough to mollify U.S. concern. In 1994, the U.S. took a sanguine view of the Taliban in spite of their massive attacks on civilians and brutal treatment of women in areas they occupied. At that time, the overriding concern of the Clinton Administration was the hope that a “stable” Afghanistan would enable U.S. oil companies to build pipelines from Central Asia to Karachi. Eventually, American feminists began to notice how the Taliban treated women. Also, pipeline hopes began to fade. All this led to a decline in U.S.-Taliban relations and to the radicalization of the Taliban. In 1998, when Osama bin Laden became too hot for the Islamist regime in Sudan, the Taliban agreed to take him in. Entering the Pak-Afghan area, Bin Ladin’s boys entered what was already a home away from home. After all, Ramsey Yousef, veteran of WTC I and the twelve airliners plot, joined his comrades in Pakistan. He overestimated Pakistani hospitality to his kind, but only marginally.
The three years from Bin Ladin’s arrival in Afghanistan to the East Coast attacks witnessed a radically irrational American security policy. In this period, it was public knowledge that Bin Ladin desired to commit the greatest terrorist strikes ever against the U.S., and that the human resources and skills available to him were increasing. It was also known to the U.S. that Pakistan held the key to Bin Ladin’s door. The U.S. did negotiate with Islamabad to assist it against Bin Ladin’s organization. Washington saw the rise of jihadi outfits in Pakistan that openly supported Bin Ladin. Washington simply accepted Pakistan’s lie that it could not influence the Taliban. Yet it never used many levers available to it to pressure Pakistan.
The U.S. maintained there was insufficient evidence to call Lashkar-e-Toiba a terrorist organization, to say nothing of Pakistan a terrorist state. IMF and World Bank money flowed into Pakistan while the latter was permitted to maintain a military burden far above that of any other Third World borrower from these agencies. U.S. allies routinely rescheduled Pakistani debts. And U.S. diplomacy continuously reiterated that Kashmir was a “disputed territory.” In September of 1999, Nawaz Sharif had sent an envoy to the U.S. to plead for support against the impending coup. The U.S. deigned to do no more than have a State Department spokesman issue a mild statement asking the Pakistani army to refrain from overthrowing the government. All these and others were pressure points that the U.S. could have manipulated in pursuit of Bin Ladin and his merry men.
Now a fascinating interaction between Americans, the Pakistan Army, and Pakistani jihadis will commence. Until U.S. operations in Afghanistan are complete, Pakistan will probably get a respite from U.S. pressure on its jihadi network. But the jihadis themselves are another matter. They have repeatedly threatened the military not to side with the U.S. against Afghanistan. The modernist army and the fundamentalist jihadis have had a marriage of great convenience. A divorce may be in the offing. But this would undermine the social coalition currently leading the Pakistani state.
U.S. relationship with Pakistan will change if the U.S. succeeds in removing the Taliban from power and destroying Bin Ladin’s organization in Afghanistan. The U.S. would enter the cauldron of army-jihadi relations in Pakistan. The U.S. would then have to choose between its anti-terrorist interests and the other interests that led it to take a soft line on Pakistan.
On September 11, 2001 many contradictions came to a head. American and Pakistani politics, not to mention Afghan, will change first. But the change will be deeper than that. The terrifying attack on America as well as its reaction will inspire more jihadis. Liberated from the desire to live, they will enter the pages of history-books as they could not imagine doing in an ordinary life. The war between the life of mundane effort and the life of short-circuiting history is under way.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.