In The Line of Fire: Pervez Musharraf

September 25, 2006

I took a ruthless decision for the sake of my people

In his first extract from his memoir In the Line of Fire the President of Pakistan writes of the anger that he felt at threats made by America after the 9/11 attacks

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 we were about to be thrust into the front line of yet another war, a war against shadows.

My military secretary came up to me and whispered: an aircraft had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. At first, I dismissed the news report as an accident involving what I thought must have been a light private aircraft. 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 deep in discussion when my military secretary slipped into the room and started fiddling with the television set.

I could not believe what I saw. Smoke was billowing out of both towers of the World Trade Centre. People were jumping out of windows. There was sheer panic, utter chaos. Two fuel-laden Boeings full of passengers 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. 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.

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 neighbouring Afghanistan under the protection of those international pariahs, the Taleban. Not only that: we were the only country maintaining diplomatic relations with the Taleban 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. The next morning I was chairing an important meeting at the Governor’s House when my military secretary told me that the US 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. Powell was quite candid: “You are either with us or against us.”

I took this as a blatant ultimatum. However, contrary to some 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.

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 US 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.

My decision was based on the wellbeing 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. 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. Third, and worst of all, was our social weakness. We lack the homogeneity to galvanise the entire nation into an active confrontation. We could not endure a military confrontation with the United States from any point of view. The ultimate question that confronted me was whether it was in our national interest to destroy ourselves for the Taleban. Were they worth committing suicide over? The answer was a resounding no.

It has famously been said that “short-term gain for long-term pain” is foolhardy, but this is exactly what happened to the allies in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, not least the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

We helped to create the Mujahidin, fired them with religious zeal in seminaries, armed them, paid them, fed them, and sent them to a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We did not stop to think how we would divert them to productive life after the jihad was won. This mistake cost Afghanistan and Pakistan more dearly than any other country. Neither did the United States realise what a rich, educated person like Osama bin Laden might later do with the organisation that we all had enabled him to establish.

Worse, the United States didn’t even consider the rebuilding and development of Afghanistan after the Soviets departed.

America simply abandoned Afghanistan to its fate, ignoring the fact that a wretchedly poor and unstable country, armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated weapons and torn apart by warlords, could become an ideal haven for terrorists.

Our greatest oversight was to forget that when you help to organise and use people fired by extraordinary religious or ideological zeal to achieve your objectives, you must consider that they might be using you to achieve their objectives and are only temporarily on your side for tactical reasons. In Mullah Omar’s case the objective was to gain power in Afghanistan. In the case of Osama bin Laden it was perhaps to get help from America, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to create al-Qaeda, obtain funding and arms, and finally secure a base from which to operate. In such situations, who is using whom becomes murky. We — the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — created our own Frankenstein’s monster.

It is true that we had assisted in the rise of the Taleban 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 Taleban. We had hoped that the Taleban, 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 Taleban came to power, we lost much of the leverage we had. 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. Now, after September 11, we were no longer constrained by these concerns. We had new, more deadly ones. Now we could detach from the Taleban. 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 Taleban and al-Qaeda for years. Earlier Pakistani governments had been hesitant about taking on the militant religious groups that were spreading extremism and fanaticism in our country.

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 centre stage.

This was a ruthless analysis 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.

On September 13, 2001, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, brought me a set of seven demands. Some of these were ludicrous. We just could not accept demands for “blanket overflight and landing rights” without jeopardising 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 gave no “blanket permission” for anything.

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.

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