9/11 in Islamabad: The First 72 Hours
It was a typical late summer day at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad — oppressively hot when the sun was out with a twinge of cool air in the evening that brought momentary relief. The weekly “Pol-Core” meeting was called to order at 0915 by recently arrived Amb. Wendy Chamberlin. This group included the deputy chief of mission, the political counselor, the chief of station, the chief of the Office of the Defense Representative to Pakistan, the regional security officer, and me as the senior Defense Attaché Office representative. I was the Army attaché at the embassy. The defense attaché was out of the country and remained so for weeks. The agenda included the ambassador’s credentialing ceremony two days later on Sept. 13, the forthcoming visit of the commander of U.S. Central Command, and the Bush administration’s plan to begin lifting the decade-long sanctions regime that had failed to halt Pakistan’s nuclear program. The ambassador emphasized it was time to move on to issues like counter-terrorism cooperation in which the United States needed Pakistan as a friend, not an adversary.
Routine embassy business filled the remainder of the day on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. I had scarcely returned home when the telephone rang. “Turn on the news, right now!” our office administrative non-commissioned officer shouted and hung up. I complied immediately. On CNN, a reporter was standing on a New York City rooftop with a burning World Trade Center tower in the distant background. Shocked, I sat down to watch, wondering what had happened. Within minutes, the answer came when an airliner struck the building’s second tower. For two hours, I watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as more news trickled in: A third plane had struck the Pentagon, a fourth was not responding to air traffic control instructions and later crashed in Pennsylvania. My wife and I fell silent when one tower collapsed, then the second.
The phone rang to notify me that the ambassador would convene the embassy emergency action committee in thirty minutes. At the residence, we went upstairs to her office suite where she was on the phone while we quietly filed in and took our seats. There was no doubt in my mind that Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan was responsible for the day’s events. He and his al-Qaeda organization had long been the focus of the chief of station’s intelligence collection efforts. It dawned on me that America would soon be a nation at war and we would be the frontline embassy in the war effort.
The ambassador hung up the phone and said this meeting had been expressly directed by the State Department. Pakistan’s foreign minister had just called to express “shock and horror” at what had happened. He hoped the United States would be able to trace the perpetrators and take action against them, and said President Pervez Musharraf would be on television soon to say the same thing. The State Department Operations Center, she continued, was warning of attacks on overseas diplomatic missions and many embassies had decided to close until the situation clarified. “What should we do?” she asked. I replied immediately that closing the embassy was absolutely the wrong message to send. If we hunkered down in place, Pakistanis would interpret this as a sign of fear. We should project strength and confidence by remaining open for regular business and attend all scheduled social functions to “show the flag.” The others agreed. The meeting was interrupted by a call from Secretary of State Colin Powell. She hung up, paused briefly to collect her thoughts, and turned to us. The crisis, she emphasized, was in Washington, not overseas. We needed cool heads and not to let our emotions get away from us.
I wore my uniform to the embassy the next day for a later call at General Headquarters with Maj. Gen. Tariq Majid, the director general for military intelligence and my classmate from the Pakistan Army Staff College course I took in 1982. I had prepared a lengthy list of talking points and questions. I began by mentioning the condolence calls from a wide variety of Pakistanis that had lit up the embassy switchboard all morning. But what was most needed now, I continued, was not condolences, but genuine cooperation from Pakistan in tracking down the perpetrators. Not since the Civil War, I emphasized, had Americans witnessed such destruction on their soil and the level of emotion in the country was as great if not greater than after Pearl Harbor. I then read off my long list of questions and asked for his response. Tariq first offered his personal condolences and said that everyone in Pakistan condemned the acts, even the anti-western Urdu press. He admitted bin Laden was the most likely suspect, but opined it was wise to look in all directions rather than concentrate solely on the most likely. In any case, he added, there was obviously a complete intelligence breakdown on the U.S. side. That four hijackings could take place within one hour with three targets hit simultaneously indicated a high degree of sophistication. “We’ve been hurt as well,” he complained, “our strategic interests have likewise been damaged.” As Tariq deftly segued into the familiar Pakistan-as-victim theme I had grown used to hearing, I realized that no decision on U.S.-Pakistani cooperation had yet been made by Musharraf. I politely thanked him for his time and departed.
Sept. 13 began with a Defense Attaché Office staff meeting to apportion our growing workload. Urgent requests for information had flowed in steadily for the past 36 hours. The majority came through the Defense Human Intelligence Service, but others came from the service’s support elements in the regional commands and still others came from the National Military Joint Intelligence Center in the Pentagon and other intelligence centers: How stable was Musharraf’s government? Would the rank and file in the Pakistan Army support a decision to abandon the Taliban? What was the domestic reaction? Were nine corps commanders — influential players in the Pakistan Army — fully on board with a decision to cooperate? How much sympathy for the Taliban was there within the army? Was there any possibility of a coup against Musharraf? Were Pakistan’s nuclear weapons safe and under positive control? Who precisely were the Taliban? What were the names of key leaders? Which ones were more important than others? Did anyone have a picture of Mullah Omar? How well equipped and supplied were the Taliban armed forces? How was their military campaign against the Northern Alliance going? Could we work with the Northern Alliance? Who could be trusted? Who could not? What would India do? What would the -stans do (the neighboring countries of Central Asia)? What about Iran? China? Russia? Was the embassy at risk?
Dozens of similar requests arrived hourly from other U.S. agencies and headquarters by encrypted telephone. Just answering the telephone, let alone the questions, was a time-consuming task.
Securing Pakistan’s Cooperation
I decided to skip the pageantry of the ambassador’s credentialing ceremony and send the Navy attaché instead. Later that afternoon, she hastily convened a meeting to disseminate what had transpired at her brief one-on-one meeting with Musharraf that followed. Like my meeting with the director general for military intelligence the day before, it was a disappointment. She opined that Musharraf was still pondering his response to seven specific demands made on Pakistan by the U.S. government. The seven demands were (1) stop al-Qaeda operatives at the border (Durand Line) if they tried to enter Pakistan, and end all logistical support to al-Qaeda; (2) give blanket overflight and landing rights for all necessary military and intelligence operations; (3) provide territorial access to U.S. and allied military intelligence and other personnel to conduct operations against al-Qaeda; (4) provide any requested intelligence information; (5) publicly condemn terrorist acts; (6) cut off all shipments of fuel to the Taliban government and stop any Pakistani recruits from going to Afghanistan; and (7), if the evidence implicated bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban continued to harbor them, sever all relations with the Taliban government.
When the “with us or against us” demand was raised, Musharraf deflected it by raising the familiar trope of repeated American betrayals of Pakistan that had become the staple of Pakistan’s diplomacy ever since sanctions had been imposed in 1990. Brushing this aside, the ambassador bluntly told him this was a past issue and Pakistan now had to choose to become an ally of the United States or an enemy. She reminded him that in the 1980s when Pakistan last played the role of a frontline state on Afghanistan, many good things had flowed from the United States. Sanctions relief might happen if Pakistan made the right decision, and perhaps other things like support in international financial institutions, debt relief, and the resumption of military and economic assistance. Musharraf complained it was difficult to sign up to cooperate in a military operation without knowing the details of what was being planned, and that India was equating Pakistan with the Taliban because of its earlier recognition of their regime. Cutting him off abruptly, the ambassador snapped that “9/11 changed all that, and there will be no dialogue EVER with the Taliban.” Their meeting ended on that sour note.
The next day — Friday — I met again with the director general for military intelligence while Chamberlin met with Musharraf. I asked Tariq straightaway if the chief executive had made a decision about the seven U.S. demands. Tariq replied obliquely, “The answer is very much there.” He said there should not be any confusion about it, but he cautioned that “precise modalities of cooperation” needed to be worked out. This was the sort of non-response that Pentagon action officers for decades had derisively termed “the usual humma-humma.” I had no time for it. I interrupted Tariq and asked him to respond to specific questions: What if U.S. actions were oriented solely on bin Laden and al-Qaeda? This would likely not be viewed unfavorably by the ranks, he replied. What actions had been taken to prepare the public and the army for cooperation with the United States? The Inter-services Public Relations directorate had already begun this work, he replied, but the United States must also publicly support Pakistan. Tariq did not answer any questions fully, but pledged Pakistani cooperation while emphasizing that certain “modalities” — he used that word several times — must still be worked out. When I returned to the embassy, Chamberlin had returned from a ninety-minute meeting with Musharraf. At an impromptu Pol-Core meeting, she disclosed the specific reservations about cooperation about which Tariq had hinted.
Her meeting apparently was more cordial than mine. The president began by stating he accepted all seven U.S. requests, joking that Pakistan was “in for penny, in for a pound.” The corps commanders, he stressed, were in “total agreement” with the decision, but several things required clarification and a number of Pakistani concerns had to be addressed. He quickly ticked off the seven requests and voiced several concerns: Sealing the 2,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan was “totally impossible” due to the difficulty of the terrain, but pledged Pakistan would do its best. Blanket overflight of Pakistani territory was “no problem” as long as no-fly zones over strategic areas — Pakistan’s nuclear sites — were established and honored. The use of Pakistani ports was fine although Karachi should not be used because it was too public and the city was not completely safe. Similarly, the use of major air bases should be avoided in favor of rarely used bases in remote areas of Balochistan. Intelligence sharing was fine so long as neither India nor Israel received any of the information provided by Pakistan and that nothing should involve Kashmir — “we will handle that.” Pakistan agreed to condemn terrorism if Kashmir was not included in the definition. On the fuel cut-off to the Taliban, Pakistan provided only kerosene to the Afghan government and that would be stopped. Breaking diplomatic relations with the Taliban was already in progress and Pakistan had recalled its ambassador in Kabul.
Musharraf emphasized his concern that the longer any military campaign went on, the greater was the possibility of negative feelings. A quick action and extraction of U.S. troops was in both countries’ interests. It would also be good to have a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the operation, buy-in from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and diplomatic support from Islamic countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. When the ambassador interrupted to ask if he was setting conditions on Pakistani cooperation, he assured her that all seven demands were accepted unconditionally and that he wished only to point out things that perhaps were not fully understood in Washington about the risk Pakistan (and he personally) was taking. “We’re compromising a hell of a lot [for you]. This will undermine my personal standing.” As for India, “Tell the Indians to lay off and stay off,” was the blunt message he wanted conveyed to New Delhi. He ended their conversation by restating a third time that he accepted all U.S. demands and advised the ambassador, “We both need to review our rusty knowledge of how to work with each other.”
The last event on my schedule that day was an evening reception at Joint Staff Headquarters where I had a long conversation with the director of the Joint Staff, the second-ranking officer in that headquarters. Lt. Gen. S.P. Shahid was a friendly and approachable officer, always with a broad smile on his face. It helped that he had once studied at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and knew American military jargon and which buttons to press when talking with American officers. He stressed the need for both the United States and Pakistan to work together to change the negative perceptions each country had about the other. He stated he would be the point of contact for future cooperation with the U.S. armed forces and that he looked forward to working together once more.
Pakistan and the Taliban
It had taken three days to convince Pakistan to cooperate with the United States and many in the embassy remained skeptical that Musharraf and the senior generals were fully on board. This was signaled at an embassy briefing ten days later for a team of officers from the Joint Staff headed by Maj. Gen. Kevin Chilton. At this briefing, Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, the director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, made an impassioned plea to the ambassador and the team not to attack the Taliban, but to let Pakistan work with them to hand over bin Laden. This was bluntly rejected by the ambassador and in the next few days, the Joint Staff team worked with Pakistani counterparts to nail down logistic support for Operation Enduring Freedom, which began on Oct. 7.
It didn’t take long to validate the embassy’s concern that Pakistan would prove to be a duplicitous ally. The Pakistan Army deployed troops to the Durand Line for the first time in history, and was assiduous in capturing and turning over foreign al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the mountains of Tora Bora. However, it allowed Taliban fighters to seek sanctuary with tribal kinsmen in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and relocated senior leaders to Quetta, the capital of neighboring Balochistan province.
Why did they do this? Pakistani support for the Taliban was rooted in a hostile relationship with Kabul for three decades after 1947. No government in Kabul has ever accepted the Durand Line imposed as a de facto border by Britain in 1893 that split the Pashtun-dominated area between Afghanistan and British India, the so-called Pashtunistan region. On Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Afghanistan refused to accept it as Britain’s successor and sought to redraw the boundary further east. The 1979 Soviet invasion afforded Pakistan the opportunity to reshape Afghanistan and end 30 years of hostility.
Every Pakistani government since then has sought a stable Afghanistan. It defines stability as having a government in Kabul not overtly hostile to Pakistan; that is Pashtun-dominated (so that Pashtuns have a divided loyalty between Afghanistan and Pakistan); and that keeps Indian influence to an absolute minimum to ensure that a future war with India is confined to Pakistan’s eastern border. Only the Taliban government ever met this definition. This failure to acknowledge — much less understand —Pakistan’s strategic imperatives was America’s first major mistake.
The second, perceived at the time by several in the embassy, was the December 2001 Bonn Agreement. Having largely accomplished America’s announced military objectives in Afghanistan, the United States put in place a government whose military and intelligence services were dominated by non-Pashtuns who ignored Pakistani concerns, was totally corrupt, and was inevitably doomed to fail. The United States ought to have learned from the abrupt collapse of the South Vietnamese armed forces in 1975 and the Lebanese Army in 1984 that soldiers will not fight and die for corrupt and faction-ridden governments no matter how much U.S. training and equipment they receive. Things might have turned out much better from the standpoint of U.S. security interests if the United States had withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2001 instead of embarking on a two-decade experiment in nation building.
The United States and Pakistan After the Taliban Takeover
With the Taliban now in charge in Kabul, where does this leave the United States and Pakistan? Both sides may indulge in a period of finger pointing for the social and humanitarian disasters sure to follow, and the temptation will be great to cut Pakistan adrift. The United States walked away from Pakistan before — in 1965 and 1971 after two wars with India and in 1990 after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan — but these were grave mistakes that should not be repeated.
U.S. officials should understand two key things going forward. First, the bilateral relationship with Pakistan needs to be confined solely to areas of agreed mutual interest. There is absolutely no basis for rebuilding the close military relationship that all but collapsed in 2011 after a series of events that alienated the Pakistani government and military: the special forces raid to kill bin Laden in Abbottabad which was considered to be a gross violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, a series of Wikileaks disclosures that embarrassed the Army chief, the shooting death of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, and the Salala border post incident in which U.S. airstrikes killed 28 Pakistani soldiers. Second, the United States has three key interests connected to Pakistan: the continuing risk of terrorism directed against the United States by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and preventing a future war between India and Pakistan that could escalate to the nuclear level. Prioritizing these interests will provide focus to a relationship that has often gone off the rails.
What then does a limited relationship look like? It means that the era of generous U.S. military and economic assistance is over. Future assistance should be limited solely to modest economic investments, humanitarian aid, and counternarcotics programs. The United States and Pakistan have a shared interest in stability in Afghanistan and limiting future Taliban excesses, and Pakistan might cooperate in leveraging its influence with the Taliban government to deliver humanitarian assistance to displaced Afghans. Intelligence sharing is possible if limited to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan on Afghan soil that attack the Pakistani state. And finally, there are abundant opportunities to stabilize Pakistan’s shaky economy because the last thing the region needs is another failed state possessing hundreds of nuclear weapons. To that end a constructive blueprint published last year by the Middle East Institute contains several initiatives that both sides can beneficially pursue.
No one could possibly have foreseen that the 20th year observation of the events of 9/11 would be bookended by Taliban governments in power in Kabul. What is needed now is less recrimination about the causes of this catastrophic outcome and more careful, somber — and humble — reflection on the limits of U.S. power and America’s inability to understand the social, political, and cultural dynamics in this and other volatile regions of the world.
David O. Smith is a distinguished fellow with the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center. He retired from government service in 2012 after serving as senior country director for Pakistan in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) and in a senior position in the Defense Intelligence Agency. As a U.S. Army officer, he spent 22 years dealing with politico-military issues in the Near East and South Asia.