February Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

It was 10 a.m on September 12 , 2001, a day after the devastating terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and Pentagon headquarters in Washington, when Lt. General Mahmood Ahmed, the then ISI chief, arrived at the State Department for an emergency meeting with the US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage. The General, who was on an official visit to Washington, was to leave for home, but was left stranded, as all airports had been closed.

“General, we require your country’s full support and cooperation,” Armitage told Pakistan’s spy master and member of the triumvirate that ruled the country. “We want to know whether you are with us or not, in our fight against terror,” he added. The meeting was adjourned for the next day after the General had assured the Armitage of Pakistan’s full support. “We will tell you tomorrow what you are required to do,” Armitage said as they left the room.

Meanwhile, at 1:30 p.m, Colin Powell spoke to President Musharraf on the phone. “The American people would not understand if Pakistan did not cooperate in this fight with the United States,” Powell said candidly, as one general to another. President Musharraf promised to cooperate fully with the United States.

It was 12 p.m on September 13, when General Mahmood returned to the State Department for the second meeting. “This is not negotiable,” said Armitage, as he handed over a single sheet of paper with seven demands which Bush administration wanted him to accept. The general, who was known for his hard-line pro-Taliban position, glanced through the paper for a few seconds and replied: “They are all acceptable to us.” The swift response took Armitage by surprise. “These are very powerful words, General. Do you not want to discuss with your President?” he asked. “I know the president’s mind,” replied General Mahmood. A visibly elated Armitage asked General Mahmood to meet with George Tenet, the CIA chief at his headquarters at Langley. “He is waiting for you,” said Armitage.

Islamabad’s support was important for the United States. Its geographical proximity and its vast intelligence information on Afghanistan were seen as crucial for any military action against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Pakistan was one of the two countries — the other was Saudi Arabia — which had formally recognised the conservative Afghan Islamic government. The American demands, to which General Mahmood acceded to, in next to no time, required Pakistan to abandon its support for the Taliban regime and provide logistical support to the American forces. The list of demands included:

1) Stop Al-Qaeda operations on the Pakistani border, intercept arms shipments through Pakistan and all logistical support for bin Laden

2) Blanket over-flights and landing rights for US planes.

3) Access to Pakistan’s naval bases, airbases and borders.

4) Immediate intelligence and immigration information.

5) Curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against the United States, its friends and allies.

6) Cut off fuel supply to the Taliban and stop Pakistani volunteers going into Afghanistan to join the Taliban.

7) For Pakistan to break diplomatic relations with the Taliban and assist the US to destroy bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.

Interestingly, a few days earlier, General Mahmood in his talks with the CIA chief, had defended Mullah Omar describing him as a pious humanitarian, not a man of violence. Pakistan’s patronage of the conservative Taliban regime, which had provided a base for bin Laden and thousands of other militants from different nationalities, had strained Pakistan’s relations, not only with the United States, but also with neighbouring countries. It is clearly apparent that the post-September turnaround was forced on the military regime, and was not the result of a considered policy review. Just a few months before surrendering to America’s arm-twisting, the military authorities were vehemently defending their support for the Taliban regime which, according to them, provided Pakistan “strategic depth.” It was the same General Mahmood who tried to convince the American administration about the Taliban when Thomas Pickering, deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, warned Pakistan against the consequences of being “in bed with the Taliban.”

Astonishingly, within a course of a week, the military government took an about-turn to become a lynchpin in the US-led military operation in Afghanistan which ousted the Taliban regime. Pakistan was back as the US’s strategic partner in the region and was now involved in a new war against terrorism. Indubitably, the military government did not have any option, but the unconditional and the quick about turn surprised even the American authorities.

Events following September 11, during the week in Washington and Islamabad provide an interesting insight into the adhoc and arbitrary decisionmaking process in Pakistan on crucial national security and foreign policy issues. Like the policy to support the Taliban regime, the decision to surrender the country’s sovereignty was also taken just by a few generals. There were no consultations at any level when President Musharraf abandoned support for the oppressive and reactionary regime in Afghanistan and gave the American forces complete access into Pakistani territory. It was all done in the best national interest, he later declared. However, the military leader had offered the same argument when they got Pakistan into a messy situation by supporting the Taliban. The Pro-Taliban policy had not only isolated Pakistan, but also encouraged Islamic extremism within the country, creating a huge domestic problem.

President Musharraf was addressing a meeting of local nazims on the evening of September 11, when he was interrupted by an urgent call from Major General Rashid Quereshi, who informed him about the terrorist attack on America. “I realised the gravity of the whole issue of this terrorist attack, ” “President Musharraf said. The next day he flew to Islamabad where he went into consultations with his military commanders and members of the National Security Council.

On the evening of September 12, he received a phone call from General Mahmood in Washington who briefed him about his meeting with Armitage. “He did tell me the gravity of the situation, and the shock and anger that is being expressed by all in the US government and also the shock of the nation,” said President Musharraf. Later, US Ambassador, Wendy Chamberlain met with him and conveyed a formal message from the American leaders for cooperation. The President assured her of Pakistan’s full support.

There was no consultation with political leaders on the paradigm shift in the strategic discourse of the nation. President Musharraf took his handpicked cabinet into confidence, almost three days after his ISI chief had already consented to the US demands. His line was that Pakistan itself was a victim of terrorism and the Taliban government were providing refuge to the religious extremists involved in sectarian killings in Pakistan. “We had given a long list of the terrorists who we wanted to be handed over to us. At least they should have turned over the terrorists to us.” He told the ministers that the decision to cooperate with the United States was necessary to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear assets and its Kashmir policy.

General Musharraf was concerned about the possible reaction from right-wing Islamic groups and the domestic fallout of his policy shift. He expressed his concern to the American ambassador during his long meeting with her on September 15, “I did express to her, our major concerns. I kept telling everyone and I told Wendy also that this is our cooperation against terrorism. You must understand the domestic fall-out. These decisions are not very easy and we need understanding from the United States and also support from them, so that I can take the nation along with me in our fight against terrorism.”

General Musharraf did not find it hard to convince his cabinet, but it was not so simple when it came to his corps commanders and members of his military junta. At least seven senior officers including Lt General Mahmood, who had earlier, in Washington, signed on the dotted line, showed reservations on the decision to pull out support for the Taliban regime. Lt General Aziz, corps commander Lahore, Lt General Jamshed Gulzar, corps commander Rawalpindi, Lt General Mushtaq, corps commander Quetta, and Lt. General Usmani, deputy chief of army staff, were among those who expressed their strong reservations over the shift in Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban. Lt General Aziz and Lt. General Gulzar had both served in the ISI and were closely linked with propping up the Taliban government. The US authorities had also accused Lt General Gulzar, as deputy director of the ISI, of having close links with bin Laden.

With Lt . General Mahmood in charge of the powerful ISI, it was not easy to effectively implement the new policy on Afghanistan. In a last bid attempt to prevent a US attack on Afghanistan, President Musharraf, in the third week of September, dispatched the ISI chief to Kandahar to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden to the United States. The General met with the Taliban leader without any aide for several hours and later informed the President that he was hopeful that Mullah Omar would cooperate. In September, President Musharraf sent three missions to Mullah Omar, two of them led by General Mahmood. He also sent a delegation of religious scholars to persuade the Taliban leader . The main point he conveyed was to surrender Osama bin Laden for the sake of peace in Afghanistan. “I was constantly conveying a message that they must understand realities and prevent the suffering of the people of Afghanistan by surrendering Osama bin Laden. And I was also trying to drill home to him that he shouldn’t make people of Afghanistan suffer for a person who’s not even an Afghan, but someone who’s come from outside.”

In an interview Musharraf said: “General Mahmood, on one occasion, did manage a breakthrough. He said, ‘We sat separately, without the interference of anybody, and Mullah Omar seemed to show a little bit of flexibility. Unfortunately, however, he did not agree on the issue of surrendering Osama bin Laden. The maximum that he agreed to was to form a court, an Islamic religious scholar’s court, to try him. He would not agree to more than that.’” Some highly placed sources believe that General Mahmood may have been playing a double game. President Musharraf was also not very happy with Mahmood’s arrogant style, and for not consulting him before agreeing to Armitage’s seven-point demand. “Though the President would have given his consent, he did not like being bypassed,” maintains a senior official.

President Musharraf acted swiftly and replaced the hard-line General Mahmood with General Mohammed Ehsan, a former Military Intelligence chief (MI), and corps commander Peshawar, who was known for his anti-Taliban views, as the new ISI chief. Through a series of purges at the top level, General Musharraf consolidated his position with the new commanders backing him fully on the new policy on Afghanistan. Interestingly, President Musharraf informed the American ambassador about General Mahmood’s retirement on October 6, a day before the decision was made public. “Yes, I did tell her, I did surprise her,” he said in an interview.

The shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy and the decision to support the United States brought huge economic and political dividends to President Musharraf’s government. From a pariah state, Pakistan became the centre of focus of the international community. Never before have so many head of states travelled to Pakistan as they did, in the few weeks after September 11. Pakistan was, once more, the US’s strategic partner. According to senior American sources, the US-led coalition could not have achieved its swift success in Afghanistan without the ISI’s intelligence support. The agency, which had been deeply involved with the Taliban from its inception, guided the American forces in ousting its own creation. The military government did not ask for any economic aid from the United States in return for its military cooperation. President Musharraf said he was avoiding it because he thought it was quite unbecoming at that time to be talking of economics. “I made it a point not to be talking on these issues, but yes, an indication of cooperation and assistance to Pakistan, understanding our internal problems, that was there.”

Later, however, Pakistan extracted some significant economic aid and concessions from the US and other western countries, that included a one-billion-dollar loan write-off, 600 million dollars in budgetary support and debt rescheduling. Importantly, the military government did not face any public backlash on its support of the United States. The pro-Taliban political parties failed to mobilise public support for the conservative regime which fell only a month after the US and its coalition forces started their military operation.

Today, 18 months down the road, Pakistan’s relations with the USA are still on shaky ground. Fresh strains have emerged in the wake of American insistence that Pakistan has not done enough to contain terrorist groups within the country or stopped infiltration accross the Line of Control. Pakistan’s alleged weapons collaboration with North Korea has also caused misgivings. There is growing apprehension in Pakistan that it could well be the next US target after Iraq. Though Pakistan faces a serious internal threat from the forces of Islamic militancy, the government has failed to realise the gravity of the situation.

The question is, will the government consider the national interest and reshape its policy or will it wait to be arm-twisted by the powers-that-be, once again?

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.