Packed airliners knifing into implacable skyscrapers, red hot fires propelled by jet fuel, darkening billowing mushroom clouds, sooty mangled bodies, trapped victims leaning out of windows, those who jumped to escape the inferno hurtling through the air like kites to crash with icy thuds, panicked ash covered pedestrians running for cover, ghostly distorted cars, last messages of hopeless love left on answering machines... these haunting images have been seared into our collective memory for the last decade.
The world changed irrevocably on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 when 19 terrorists hijacked four planes, flying two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, hitting the Pentagon with a third, and crashing the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers resisted. More than 3,000 people, mostly Americans, but also people from 115 other countries, had their lives violently snuffed out. 9/11 was so surreal that it seemed more like an overtly realistic and garish film scene rather than a harsh reality. As the Twin Towers shuddered, swayed and collapsed, it was an iconoclastic image of horror… the reigning Superpower brought down to its quaking knees.
Former President George Bush said recently that his first reaction to 9/11 was that of anger. “Who the hell would do that to America?” Despite a gargantuan military, trillions of dollars worth of weapons, and a skilled intelligence agency, the US was unable to stop the attacks on its soil. After such a cataclysmic event, America struggled to find answers to its massive intelligence failure as President Bush announced, "You are with us or you are with the terrorists." The world snapped to attention as the US sought to break the back of the virulent al Qaeda.
Gains For Allies
Being with "us" meant more funds for governments willing to become new partners in the War on Terror. "There is a central contradiction in the War on Terror - you can call it a crusade for freedom or its really about democracy but the reality was it pushed the United States into closer co-operation with security forces, intelligence agencies and governments in a number of autocratic places, in central Asia, in Arab world, in Asia, South East Asia, Africa," says Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That's just an unpleasant aspect of the war on terror that we’re still living with today."
The list of front-line states who received money includes many authoritarian governments which had poor human rights records. The US had nearly banned Pakistan from receiving US aid after the country's nuclear tests, and the military coup that put General Pervez Musharraf in power. In an interview in 2006, Musharraf recounted a conversation Pakistan's then-military intelligence chief had with Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, in the days after the attacks. He told the interviewer: "He said, 'Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age'."
Close on the heels of his statement came a blanket denial by Richard Armitage who minced no words in saying that he had never said anything quite so colourful to Musharraf’s intelligence chief.
Despite Musharraf’s embellishments, it is evident that his regime greatly benefited from 9/11.According to the Center for Defense Information, in the three years before 9/11, Pakistan received about $9m dollars in aid. In the three years after, it received $4.7bn in military assistance alone. Before 9/11, Pakistan was going to default on its debt and was about to be declared a pariah state. Pakistan’s significant economic gains since 2002, which the Musharraf government takes credit for, were due to the impact of international post 9/11 developments. During Musharraf’s era, the economic situation only appeared to be improving because of favourable terms granted to Pakistan in the light of 9/11. These consisted of export incentives, like greater market access to the EU, debt rescheduling, and one-time incentives like US grants and Saudi investments. As Clifford May, president of the group Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, puts it: “Most regimes in the world are run by bad guys. Some of those bad guys are more open to American assistance and American influence than others. Part of the goal and skill of foreign policy and diplomacy is to figure out who you can work with and where you can make changes that are productive."
Despite Pakistan's subsequent support for the US, the 9/11 Commission Report provides comprehensive evidence that the September 11 operation was rehearsed in Pakistani safe houses and financed through Pakistani money-transfer networks. The mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, was found hiding in Abbottabad, ironically a few miles away from Pakistan’s famed Military Academy. As the US stamps its presence in the region, Pakistan continues to find itself facing accusations that it is playing a double game by fighting against - and also working with - America's enemies. We can no longer afford to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
Destruction Comes Knocking
Undoubtedly, the impact of these years of war on Pakistan has been destructive as it confronts threats from hydra headed extremists. In the past decade, some 35,000 people have been killed as a result of fighting in the country, more than 3,000 security personnel have also died and the cost to the economy - directly and indirectly – amounts to $67bn. Once vibrant Peshawar now attracts suicide bombers rather than the tourists and traders it was known for. “I come to my shop every morning but I don’t know if I am going to go home alive or in a body bag,” said Sheikh Arshad “When 9/11 happened I had no idea it would bring such destruction to my business, to my city. There is nothing anyone can do. The police come after every bombing, take down our names and promise compensation. But nothing happens.”
In the years immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there was a tendency to expend funds in haste on homeland security in the US. The intelligence agencies were estimating that there were as many as 5,000 al Qaeda operatives at large in the country. These claims have clearly proved to be unjustified, but in the interim, the US government increased its expenditure for dealing with terrorism. Today, the US is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to America’s future can be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars contributed to the United States’ macroeconomic weaknesses, which exacerbated its deficits and debt burden. For the White House, the US military became the cornerstone of a foreign policy that emphasised pre-emptive military action. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the most costly example of that shift. But the subsequent invasion of Iraq was entirely unconnected to al Qaeda - as much as Bush tried to establish a link. According to many observers, Afghanistan is now headed for another civil war — a proxy battle with the United States and its allies funneling weapons and cash to one side, and regional powers like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia each backing their favourite horses. Ten years after 9/11, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost and immense goodwill squandered, Afghanistan seems to be going backwards.
A Haven For Lone Wolves
While the US has managed to enhance its own security in the last decade, Pakistan remains a sanctuary for al Qaeda and some of the world’s other most dangerous terrorists. Our policies of “strategic depth” led us to nurture “Mujahideen” aka Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan to counter the Soviet threat. We created a Frankenstein that has now run amok and is threatening to disintegrate the social fabric of Pakistan. If we are unable to police our borders and stop the spread of deadly militancy which is being exported worldwide, why should we blame the Americans for killing al Qaeda’s top commanders who have been granted safe harbours in Pakistan? The fault lies within us for failing to grasp the nettle of militancy and squeezing it out to the last drop. Over the past 2 years, the US has eliminated more than half of al Qaeda's top leaders and virtually every affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander. But al Qaeda is slowly morphing into lone wolves who are taking on the global jihadi mantle, while the web savvy al Qaeda propagandists and apologists are promoting the group's ideology and indoctrinating militant wannabes.
Former senior CIA analyst Bruce Riedel says, "Al Qaeda's old core is badly wounded but it still has powerful allies like the Pakistani Taliban that can serve as force multipliers. There may be a proliferation of militants "trained for one-time missions to hemorrhage the US" -- people like Faisal Shahzad. The Pakistan-born US citizen radicalised himself through the Internet, spent a few days with militants in Pakistani tribal areas, then tried last year to attack New York's crowded Times Square with a car bomb that failed to explode.
Lone wolves can become radicals on their own without direct contact with other militants. These people get their ideology and potential guidance exclusively from their computer screen and are difficult, if not impossible, for intelligence and security agencies to detect. This begs the question: why are so many of these dangerous elements hunched over computer screens or receiving training Pakistani in origin? Why does nearly every terrorist plot unearthed have a Pakistani link? In the decade since 9/11, there is something rotten in the state of Pakistan and the stench is overwhelming.
Doctrine Of Bitterness
Thousands have been seamlessly indoctrinated with formerly rational people expounding outlandish conspiracy theories. “9/11? It’s just a plot by the Americans and the Jews to defame the Muslims… don’t you know that X number of Jewish workers did not turn up for work that day at the Twin Towers?”. How many times have we heard people saying that these are not Muslims who are committing such heinous deeds? As if the Muslim Ummah cannot harbour serpents who gleefully abuse the basic tenets of Islam. Ridiculous theories abound in Pakistani drawing rooms from Baltimore to Versailles to London to Lahore, but it is these very same people who run down the US at every opportunity who have no qualms about queuing for long hours to get a US visa and salivate at the mere thought of a Green Card. A friend's 15 year old son who lives in the US says that he hates the American way of life, because all he wants to do is read the Quran, meditate, live in Medina and give up his life in the service of the "Imams".
As the US stamps its presence in the region, Pakistan continues to find itself facing accusations that it is playing a double game by fighting against - and also working with - America's enemies. It is high time we took some firm action against our former strategic assets and stamp out the scourge of extremism threatening to engulf Pakistan.
Maheen Usmani is a freelance journalist. She has reported on varied subjects, ranging from socio-political issues to sports, travel, culture and counter terrorism.