Mary Anne Weaver’s typically excellent (I’ve been a fan since 1999, when I read her book Egypt and militant Islam, which remains the best analysis of al-Qaeda’s history I’ve seen) chronicle of the Tora Bora debacle raises the key question in U.S.-Pakistan relations in a little aside towards the end: Is it in the interests of the Pakistani leadership to actually capture bin Laden?
There is certainly something darkly funny about the fact that every time Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf comes to Washington, or hosts a top U.S. official, his security forces announce a major breakthrough in their relentless battle with al Qaeda. Funnier still is how much the General and his administration expect us to swallow with a straight face. For example, last year, when President Bush directly asked Musharraf to allow U.S. officials to interrogate A.Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist at the heart of a global discreet nuclear supermarket to, Musharraf responded that Pakistan would be happy to allow the CIA to “submit written questions for Khan.” Uh–never mind.
Last week, of course, President Musharraf was in New York, and this time his men outdid themselves: Announcing the by now de rigeur “breakthrough” against al-Qaeda through the arrest of “an important cell,” the Pakistani military then introduced the piece de resistance: An Al-Qaeda drone aircraft, which they claimed could be used to conduct surveillance and even guided bombing attacks on U.S. and allied forces in neighboring Afghanistan. One look at the photograph of the diabolical device left me crying with laughter.
But the episode reminded me of Weaver’s question, and of a phenomenon I’d noted during the Tora Bora action in Afghanistan, and many times since in Iraq. There’s a tendency in Washington to want to believe those who profess friendship and shared interests, particularly when they say the sorts of things that confirm the beliefs, however misguided, prevalent in the corridors of U.S. power. The Afghan warlords appeared to have developed a knack for it.
I watched Tora Bora on TV, of course, and I remember seeing the warlords subcontracted to go up and flush out Bin Laden mugging for the cameras every morning, scowling like so many extras in an old Hollywood pirate movie, vowing to go up and destroy al Qaeda — “we hate the terrorists,’” they’d snarl, on cue, aaarrrh. But there always seemed to be the hint of a grin at the edges of those scowls, a game face that anyone who has ever lived or traveled in the Third World would instantly recognize it as belonging to a hustler. Their vows to go up and finish Bin Laden never seemed any more credible than those of the Fox News harlequin Geraldo, donning a helmet and brandishing a .45 on camera at the bottom of the same hill. Particularly when events began to take on a familiar pattern, of morning scowling at the cameras, then a charge up the hill, which cranked up the Qaeda heavy machine guns, prompting a retreat and an air strike before bad light stopped play and the warlord’s men would knock off for the night and vow to return the next day to finish the job.
But if you stopped to consider it for a moment, through the prism of the interests involved rather than the wishful fantasies concocted in Washington — and this, granted, in retrospect — you have to wonder why it would have been in the interests of provincial Afghan warlords to hurl themselves selflessly at the guns of al-Qaeda. They were happy to take the money, and the vehicles and the weapons offered by the Americans in payment for outsourcing the Tora Bora job. Those would be inordinately useful in their battle with rival warlords over the next hill on such bread and butter issues as taxing opium production. But it made no sense to waste good fighting men on a contract killing for the Americans when the target was well-armed, well dug-in and desperate. At the crucial moment, it turned out some of the same warlords turned out to have made their own deals with Bin Laden, too. And why not? Warlords, borrowing for a moment John Foster Dulles’s aphorism about American statecraft, don’t have friends; warlords only have interests. They’re always at war with their neighbors; always in danger of being obliterated by ambitious rivals within their own ranks. Their survival is based on a combination of force, and cunning, outwitting their opponents, internal and external by carefully balancing competing interests, and always picking the right moment to change horses.
It made no sense for the warlords of Tora Bora to risk everything to kill Bin Laden. Besides, some of those were far more loyal to bin Laden than US commanders wanted to know. And so Bin Laden, and hundreds of his leading cadres, escaped to set up shop in Pakistan. Which brings us back to General Musharraf, whose circumstances are not unlike those of some of the larger Afghan warlords, but on an even grander scale.
The general, like the warlords next door, rules by dint of force – and cunning. It’s a longstanding tradition, of course, for Pakistan to be ruled by military men, who imposed themselves as an answer to the national malaise. Democracy has been the exception rather than the rule in Pakistan’s half-century of independence, and the military rulers who have dominated its history tend to have been removed by violent death rather than through elections or peaceful retirement.
Musharraf presides over a polity in which pro-al Qaeda Islamist parties control whole regions, while the officer corps of his military and intelligence services is filled with sympathizers of the Taliban and Qaeda-linked Kashmir groups that Pakistan had, before September 11 2001, nurtured and promoted as a matter of national policy. September 11 represented a real crisis for the regime in Pakistan, because it forced Musharraf to abandon his Taliban proxy. His first response was to do everything in his power to persuade them to force out Bin Laden, so that they could remain in power. When that failed, he reluctantly agreed to back U.S. military action in Afghanistan, but mostly on the quiet. He was always going to be a difficult ally in the ‘war on terror,’ needing to balance pressure from Washington with the need to survive in a country where a vast majority of the population identified more with Bin Laden than with Bush, and where armed extremism was rife and well integrated into his security forces. And, of course, India was the big winner when its friends in the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul against U.S. orders — in deference to Pakistan — to remain outside the capital.
It is notable that while Pakistan has certainly arrested scores of Qaeda operatives and a few leaders, they have not seen fit to go after the leaders of the Taliban, many of whom live openly in Pakistan, much to the chagrin of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
So the interests of Pakistan’s strongman, and those of his U.S. allies, are hardly identical. And yet, at the same time, neither are they antagonistic: despite his shortcomings as an ally, the U.S. has an overriding interest in ensuring Musharraf’s physical and political survival, because his departure from the scene in the traditional manner of Pakistani strongmen would likely see a new military regime that would take the country further towards the jihadist camp.
The Pakistani regime represents many things the U.S. finds odious, first and foremost its nuclear proliferation. (Nobody seriously believes that AQ Khan acted entirely independently of the military dictatorship in which he worked,, do they?) But Pakistan has made itself the key ally in the intelligence war against al-Qaeda, and “breakthroughs” to coincide with Musharraf’s travels aside, they have been responsible for netting the most valuable Qaeda operative snagged thus far. So captured al-Qaeda operatives are a kind of currency in the relationship, but one that the leadership in Islamabad seems mindful of of spending wisely and prudently, to their maximum advantage.
Weaver quotes U.S. officials and analysts wondering whether it’s in the interests of the Pakistani leadership to actually capture bin Laden. They’re skeptical, largely because of the domestic political consequences. But it’s worth adding that Pakistan’s usefulness in Washington’s calculations would plummet, precipitously, were al-Qaeda no longer an issue. Pakistan is an economic and political basket case; India, it’s arch rival is a regional power, a stable democracy whose long term economic and geostrategic importance to Washington (as a hedge against China) entirely dwarfs that of Pakistan. It’s far from clear that the Pakistani leadership would benefit more than it would lose should it manage to entirely uproot the Qaeda operations in its cities and wilds.
The administration likes to counter such skepticism by pointing out that al Qaeda has tried to kill Musharraf twice, and that this makes it an overriding imperative to prioritize their capture and elimination. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Musharraf owes his position not to any especially solid support base, but to his ability to balance, court and neutralize a number of competing interests. He’s certainly shown no sign that he believes it is in his best interests to mount a sustained, large-scale military offensive if the tribal lands bordering Afghanistan, where bin Laden is known to be hiding. But it’s a safe bet that there’ll be the occasional sortie to coincide with his foreign travels.