By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
THE events of 9/11, 20 years ago, were as transformative as they were tragic. The attackers’ choice of targets, the symbols of financial and military power and employment of passenger planes as weapons shocked the United States and the world.
It was the second time in American history that its adversaries conducted a surprise, devastating attack on its soil on September 11, 2001. About 61 years before this incident, the Japanese had bombarded Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, provoking a sharp American military reaction that culminated in the dropping of nuclear weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima on August 6 and 9, 1945.
However, it was not a state but a transnational, non-state militant organisation, al-Qaeda, that was involved in and took responsibility for the events of 9/11. As the tragedy began to unfold under the thick smoke debris of the World Trade Centre in New York City, all fingers were pointing at the al-Qaeda leadership, notably Osama bin Laden and his associates hiding in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, Afghanistan was in a similar condition today as it was 20 years ago. The Taliban were then too, ruling the country without any international recognition, functional economy or state apparatus. The United States and its allies had left Afghanistan to fend for itself, refusing to assist the Taliban-run government. While they had aligned with and supported the same elements by all means during their war against the ‘Godless’ communist Soviet Union, they were not willing to foot the bill for an Islamic Emirate. Afghanistan and Pakistan then had inherited some of the troubled legacies of the Afghan-Soviet War (1980-88), which included the emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda finding sanctuaries in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda and many other transnational militant networks were not new to the region; they had dug deeper social and ideological roots here for more than a decade, especially among the religious organisations that had supported the Afghan was against the Soviets. Pakistan had then played the role of a ‘frontline’ state to defeat Soviet aggression in Afghanistan with the material, diplomatic and political support of the US. 9/11 changed everything for the region and the world as Americans red in rage vowed to avenge the humiliation and the loss of human life.
Some of the first calls were placed to the leadership in Pakistan. Incidentally, the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence happened to be in Washington D.C. on an official visit. The question they shot at Pakistan was ‘Are you with us or with them?’ The Americans were very assertive, aggressive and determined to teach the Taliban and al-Qaeda a lesson. Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia, attempted to mediate between the Taliban and the US, but neither of the two were willing to consider amicable means to apprehend and bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.
Neutrality with clouds of war hovering over the horizon was not an option, let alone staying with the Taliban. Rather, Pakistan played a pragmatic game, making virtue out of necessity. The military strongman General Pervez Musharraf accepted every demand the Americans placed before him. As they had pushed Pakistan hard to cooperate in an unfolding ‘war on terror,’ they were surprised to see the Pakistanis say ‘yes sir’ to everything they asked for.
Isolated for his unconstitutional takeover three years before, the general was in dire need of American assistance to consolidate his power. For him personally, such an opportunity couldn’t come at a better time, and he made the best of it. However, there was a big gap between the pro-American policy Musharraf adopted and the popular sentiments on the streets of Pakistan, which were generally sympathetic to the Taliban. One of the immediate political outcomes was that a coalition of religious parties—Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal—won majorities in Balochistan and the then Northwest Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan in the 2002 elections– and formed a government for the next five years.
As the gigantic war machine of the US-led coalition bogged down in the rugged terrain of the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, the pressure grew on Pakistan to ‘do more.’ With each setback in the war, Pakistan became the scapegoat for failed political and military strategies. As a reaction to the ‘war on terror,’ Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) emerged in the border regions, challenging the writ of the state. Pakistan had no choice but to prepare and fight two insurgencies, one in Balochistan launched by separatists and the other by religious extremists.
Sadly, both happened under the shadow of the American war in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2017. It was the longest insurgency, costing Pakistan more than 70,000 casualties, including 15,000 security personnel, while millions were displaced internally.
It has taken too much suffering for Pakistan to say, ‘Never again will we get involved in others’ wars.’
I hope it says this course.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).