Usama bin Laden is a popular icon in Pakistan


“To this day, Usama bin Laden is a popular icon in Pakistan. Mosques and affiliated madrassas schools in Pakistan teach hatred of America and all that is not Islam,” wrote high-ranking National Security Council veteran Richard Clarke in 2004. His memoir Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror provided ample proof of Pakistan’s duplicity as a “frenemy” to the West, facts that undermined again his previously examined optimism about “real Islam.”

Just as Clarke analyzed Saudi Arabia’s ambiguous relationship to jihadist threats, “Pakistan had been tentative and bifurcated before September 11” with respect to Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in neighboring Afghanistan. He explained:

The military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had provided the Taliban with arms, men, and information. ISID personnel had trained Kashmiri terrorists at al Qaeda camps and worked with al Qaeda-related terrorists to put pressure on India. Pakistani police and security services, on the other hand, had arrested al Qaeda personnel transiting en route to Afghanistan, when given specific information by U.S. authorities.

America’s hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after he orchestrated the August 7, 1998, bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania brought Pakistan’s dual allegiances into sharp relief. Clarke noted:

Al Qaeda members had moved freely through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Despite the fact that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate was training, equipping, and advising the Taliban in Afghanistan, they professed no ability to influence that group to close terrorist camps and hand over bin Laden.

Such excuses left Clarke unimpressed:

I believed that if Pakistan’s ISID wanted to capture bin Laden or tell us where he was, they could have done so with little effort. They did not cooperate with us because ISID saw al Qaeda as helpful to the Taliban. ISID also saw al Qaeda and its affiliates as helpful in pressuring India, particularly in Kashmir. Some, like General Hamid Gul, the former director of ISID, also appeared to share bin Laden’s anti-Western ideology.

In response to the East African embassy bombings, President Bill Clinton ultimately ordered cruise missile strikes on Afghan Al Qaeda camps on August 20, 1998, which involved flightpaths across Pakistani airspace. During strike planning, American policymakers considered forewarning Pakistan, particularly given that the Pakistanis might misperceive the American missiles as an attack from neighboring India, Pakistan’s historic enemy. In the end, Clarke and others rejected advising the Pakistanis, for “[i]f they were told in advance, some of us believed that the ISID would alert the Taliban and possibly al Qaeda.”

During the missile strikes, Clarke recalled,

Pakistani ISID officers were killed. The Pakistanis were reported by media sources to be present at the camp training Kashmiri terrorists. ISID had several offices around Afghanistan and was assisting the Taliban in its fight to gain control of the northern part of the country where the Northern Alliance still held out.

In any future strikes on Al Qaeda, American conflicts with Pakistan, a country of 238 million as of 2021, entailed serious ramifications, particularly given that both Pakistan and India face each other off as nuclear powers. So warned Marine General Anthony Zinni, commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which covered Afghanistan and neighboring Southwest Asia. He, Clarke recalled,

advised against further bombings because of the negative effect they had in Pakistan. Zinni was afraid that we would cause a public outcry in Pakistan that would force that nuclear power to distance itself from us. We could lose the leverage necessary to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war, nuclear war.

“More disturbing,” Clarke added, “are reports that some scientists who had worked on Pakistan’s nuclear program are also al Qaeda sympathizers and have discussed their expertise with al Qaeda, Libya, Iran, North Korea, and others.” He moreover did not necessarily trust in Pakistani security over nuclear materials. “Large areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border are still not controlled by the central government and offer sanctuary to the Taliban and al Qaeda. All of this is true about a country that also has nuclear weapons,” he wrote.

Clarke saw a certain glimmer of hope in General Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s dictator during 9/11 after having become in 1999 the latest general in Pakistani history to seize power. After 9/11, Clarke wrote,

and despite the popularity of al Qaeda in parts of Pakistan, General Musharraf courageously pressed his agencies to help the U.S. find any al Qaeda presence in the country. Two of al Qaeda’s top operational managers, Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Abu Zubayda, were among those found and arrested in joint Pakistani-American actions.

Yet CIA analyst Michael Scheuer emphasized in his 2002 book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, Musharraf’s precarious position. Scheuer, then the head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit in the years before and after 9/11, wrote that:

Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf appears to have taken up permanent residence between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In an effort to avoid American ire and win Western aid for Pakistan’s failing economy, Musharraf provided bases from which the U.S. military has attacked bin Laden and took an array of policy gambles that would have stunned the most experienced riverboat gambler. In fewer than ninety days, Musharraf reversed twenty-two years of Pakistani Afghan policy and helped to unseat the first genuine pro-Pakistan government in Kabul since partition of the subcontinent. He next announced steps to begin backing Pakistan away from its historic support for the jihad in Kashmir.

Likewise, Scheuer noted,

Musharraf embarked on a program to reduce the political power and armaments of the country’s religions parties and mandated changes that would moderate the content of the Islamic education presented by the vast, mujahedin-producing, network of religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan.

However, such bold moves, Scheuer warned, for Musharraf

has not yet earned an even remotely acceptable return on his investment. He was won some economic aid, but not enough to stop the economy’s deterioration. He also has not been able to pry loose from the United States Pakistan’s long bought-and-paid-for F-16s [American relaxation of nuclear sanctions on Pakistan, given its post-9/11 importance, finally allowed the acquisition in 2006.]. Thus his support for the U.S. war on terrorism has not won the expected large scale benefits.

Scheuer concluded that the

goal of Musharraf’s moves to tame militant Islam in Pakistan have received some positive domestic response, but they are increasingly opposed because they are being characterized as kowtowing to the Americans.

In the face of such daunting challenges and grim prognoses, Clarke advocated development aid for perennially unstable Pakistan, which he puzzlingly described as “[o]nce an example of an Islamic democracy with a high-tech future.” Despite repeated documentation in the years since 9/11 that jihadists do not come from poor backgrounds, he wrote that the

ideological battle for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis will only be won by the secular modernists if they can be seen to be improving the standard of living for the many poor, uneducated Pakistanis among whom al Qaeda derives much of its support.

Clarke speculated about what his hero Bill Clinton would have done were he still president after 9/11 for “stabilizing Pakistan.” This would have included “pushing hard for a security arrangement between India and Pakistan to create a nuclear free zone,” Clarke wrote. Given that India desires nuclear deterrence against not just Pakistan but also China, denuclearizing the Indian subcontinent seems even more utopian than Clinton’s 1994 attempt to denuclearize North Korea.

For all the difficulties Clarke described in Pakistan, as confirmed by Scheuer, Clarke once again exhibited his usual habit of looking on Islam’s bright side. He did not indicate any awareness that American material largesse might be incapable of overcoming factors such as Islamic fanaticism, Pakistan’s own definitions of national interest, or simple corruption. Unsurprisingly, Clarke revealed himself in his 2004 memoir as an advocate of nation-building in Afghanistan, a project that would finally catastrophically collapse 20 years after 9/11, as a future article will analyze.


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