September issue 2004

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 20 years ago

It kicks off like a typical thriller: ‘Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States,’ it goes. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon… In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run.

‘For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travellers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine…’

What happened next is seared on countless minds, not just in the US but across the world. The narrative of the 9/11 commission’s report lacks the element of suspense. For all that, the opening gambit is compelling enough to make you read on, perhaps hoping against hope that the two commercial transcontinental flights, overdosed on fuel for the long journey and with regular weekday passenger payloads, will somehow be prevented from going where no plane had gone before.

This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Except that you don’t wake up, not even when it’s over.

But then, it’s not exactly over, is it? Notwithstanding the Bush administration’s efforts to portray the Athens Olympics as particularly significant in view of the participation of two freshly “liberated” nations, Iraq is a bloody mess and last month the United Nations offered a stinging indictment of conditions in Afghanistan by deciding to pull out on grounds of insecurity. In the case of Iraq, too, the UN has been keeping an eye on developments from Amman rather than Baghdad.

The 9/11 commission did not concern itself too closely with the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Its chief remit was to figure out whether the novel attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could somehow have been prevented.

And the answer is yes. It isn’t spelt out in the report in so many words. But read between the lines, and it stares you in the eye.

This is not, mind you, to detract from the culpability of the plotters — or the ingenuity of their plot. The details of how the plan coalesced over a gestation period of several years are morbidly fascinating. The fanaticism of the perpetrators is frightening in the extreme, and carries the implication that it’s very difficult to put up an effective line of defence against cadres who have no qualms about giving their lives for a cause.

Yet the combination of fanaticism with violent intent isn’t the novelty. It’s a phenomenon humanity has contended with, in varying degrees, since prehistory. Like most other things in our lives, it has acquired new forms over the past century. Ninety years ago, a single terrorist act led to the worst outbreak of meaningless slaughter that Europe had witnessed until then. Twenty years after that, the Nazi menace was beginning to cast its pall.

Hopes of a new world order in the aftermath of the Second World War were asphyxiated before long by the Cold War, with the US and the Soviet Union as the chief protagonists — a phenomenon that dominated international relations for the next four decades. It is instructive to remember that the west’s post-communist bogey, Islamist terrorism, was nurtured on the same rugged terrain of Afghanistan where the Soviet system is said to have met its Waterloo. And at the same time, too.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, to prop up an incoherent and poorly led regime that lacked mass support, was not only a crime but also an act of monumental stupidity — eclipsed only by the American response, which burgeoned before long into the largest exercise in covert warfare since Vietnam. Reaching this conclusion does not require the benefit of hindsight. Resistance to foreign occupation can generally lay claim to moral superiority, but it was fairly obvious back in the 1980s that the bands of mujahideen propped up by a generous flow of arms and other resources from the US and Saudi Arabia would do more harm than good.

The folly of fomenting a revolt that relied mainly on fundamentalism was compounded by encouraging the import of fanatics from across the Arab world, among them Osama bin Laden. Their murderous ways excited no qualms, because they weren’t killing Americans. Not then. From the American point of view, jihad was perfectly kosher at the time.

This callous hypocrisy goes unacknowledged in the 9/11 commission report, which glosses over the crucial period with a casual sentence or two, admitting the US-Saudi role in funding the mujahideen, but pointing out that American funds did not, as far as it could tell, directly benefit bin Laden. It does, however, reflect in passing on the fact that the eventual Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan led many of the Islamists to believe that they could defeat the rival superpower as well.

The report devotes a lot more attention to the fact that American intelligence structures remained grounded in the Cold War era, and therefore came up short when called upon to cope with a completely different threat. It suggests that better cooperation and coordination between the various intelligence agencies would have improved prospects of the 9/11 plot unravelling. There were missed leads and ignored briefs aplenty, with some of the confusion attributable to the reluctance of the FBI and the CIA to even talk to one another, let alone pool their resources.

The commission, which has refused to disband after submitting its report, is composed of five Republican senators and five Democrats, and its bipartisanship is reflected in the fact that neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration attracts much flak. The report does, however, make it painfully obvious that, despite occasional contacts between the two sides, there is not a shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government collaborated with Al- Qaeda in any way. And while the latter’s cadres do appear to have passed through Iran, the commissioners do not believe the regime in Tehran had any inkling of what was afoot.

Pakistan, for a range of reasons, figures prominently in the report. The primary reason, which isn’t clearly spelt out, is of course the role of the Zia-ul-Haq regime in the Afghan imbroglio. Arms and other forms of assistance to the mujahideen all passed through Pakistan, with substantial leakage en route. The Arab world’s would-be jihadis also used this country as a conduit, and their ranks were swelled by thousands of military and civilian volunteers from Pakistan. And many of the Taliban were products of madrassahs on this side of the Durand Line.

It is therefore not particularly surprising that Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, a freelance terrorist before he became involved with Al-Qaeda, felt perfectly comfortable hatching his plots from a Karachi base. He was part of the whirlwind Pakistan has had to reap, with terrorism taking its place alongside the Kalashnikov culture and the proliferation of heroin as the deadliest legacies of the last time a Pakistani military regime entered into a relationship of almost unquestioning servitude with Washington.

The commission’s report says that Nawaz Sharif was frequently prodded to persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. At one point, Sharif even suggested mounting a Pakistani operation to capture the Al-Qaeda chief, and Bill Clinton approved of the idea, but the prime minister was toppled before the plan could be put into action. Pervez Musharraf was nudged in the same direction, made promises but failed to provide results. After 9/11, Pakistan became a potential target for military action in the event of non-cooperation. When Musharraf was told what he was expected to do in terms of facilitating the invasion of Afghanistan, he unhesitantly said yes to everything. Understandably, he felt he had no option. The report suggests his resolve weakened after the fall of Kabul, and it took last year’s assassination attempts to jolt him back into action.

Since then, there have apparently been several notable successes and at least a few disasters, such as the military operation in Wana. But there is no end in sight: if Islamist terrorism sank its roots into Pakistani soil during the Zia era, now it has sprouted branches. It could be decades before it is uprooted, and much blood may flow in the interim.

Needless to say, Pakistan’s future is not something that the 9/11 commission concerned itself with. What it does dwell upon at length is measures that the US can take to improve its image in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Its suggestions do not include withdrawal from Iraq, followed by generous war reparations. In fact, the occupation of Iraq does not figure at all in its report — which makes sense at one level, given that the invasion had nothing to do with 9/11. On the other hand, that’s not the impression most Americans got: they viewed the aggression as retribution.

Many of the commission’s recommendations focus on restructuring US intelligence agencies, and the report claimed its first scalp when CIA director George Tenet resigned in the face of extensive criticism. Bush has accepted the need for an intelligence czar, a sort of über-director of all the agencies. But the intelligence community itself is less than thrilled at being singled out for censure, with a few of its members openly claiming that politicians are mainly to blame for intelligence shortcomings and failures.

This saga would be incomplete, of course, without a gem or two from the American president — who, incidentally, was reluctant to set up a commission in the first place and, when called upon to testify, insisted on doing so on camera, and in the company of his minder-in-chief, Dick Cheney. Anyhow, the need to replace Tenet led to the controversial nomination of Porter Goss, whom Bush described as someone who knows “the CIA inside and out and is the right man to lead this important agency at this critical moment in our nation’s history.”

Within days it emerged that Goss had, in an interview recorded for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 but not used in the documentary, declared himself unqualified for a CIA posting last March. “I couldn’t get a job with the CIA today,” he had said. “I don’t have the language skills… I don’t have the cultural background, probably.”

The White House dismissed this revelation as ‘ridiculous hearsay,’ even though video evidence of the statement exists. And Goss’s self-assessment will do wonders for the CIA’s self-assurance as well as the nation’s confidence in the agency.

Meanwhile, with Bush less than certain of winning re-election two months hence, we can expect more arrests in and around Pakistan (the million-dollar question being, of course, whether Musharraf can come up with the ‘big one’), and quite possibly another orange alert or two in the US. And if Al Qaeda is determined to ensure that the White House doesn’t slip out of neoconservative hands, perhaps even the odd display of fireworks. Hopefully, a clear majority of the American electorate will prove themselves somewhat wiser than the terrorists.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.