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Opinion - Terrorism


9/11 Commission Report — An exercise in escapism

G. Parthasarathy

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission set up in the US to inquire into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington spared the Bush Administration of any serious embarrassment, by also blaming the Clinton government for lack of vigilance and vision. While the Commission has rejected allegations that Mr Saddam Hussein was linked with the Al Qaeda, its conclusions on how to deal with developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia reflect an absence of serious introspection and realism, says G. Parthasarathy.

WHENEVER Governments in India face public outrage for alleged acts of omission and commission they chose the easy way out. They appoint a commission of inquiry, either in the belief that they can suitably shape the direction the commission's proceedings take or out of a conviction that the work of the commission can be stalled and delayed till the public loses all interest in the matter and new scandals emerge.

A commission headed by a retired civil servant Lord Butler was appointed by the Tony Blair Government to inquire into intelligence inputs that influenced the decision to send troops to Iraq.

Lord Butler predictably exonerated the Blair Government of charges that it manipulated the intelligence agencies to secure their endorsement for plans to invade Iraq. He even glossed over the rather dubious role of senior figures in the intelligence establishment in this sordid episode.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission set up in the US to inquire into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington spared the Bush Administration of any serious embarrassment, by also blaming the Clinton Administration for lack of vigilance and vision. While the Commission has rejected allegations that Mr Saddam Hussein was linked with the Al Qaeda, its conclusions on how to deal with developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia reflect an absence of serious introspection and realism. They are, at best, an exercise in escapism.

The 9/11 Commission presents extensive evidence about the involvement of Pakistan in providing support and sustenance to several Wahhabi oriented extremist Islamist groups, culminating in the involvement of the ISI with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

The Commission, in fact, acknowledges that it was the ISI that introduced Osama bin Laden to Taliban leaders. The Commission rightly states: "The enemy is not Islam, the great world faith, but a perversion of Islam." But it conveniently glosses over the fact that it was the CIA that used Wahhabi Islam and its champions such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden as tools to rid Afghanistan of Soviet occupation. It was, after all, the former President, Ronald Reagan, who welcomed those the US now labels as Islamist terrorists in the White House. Reagan then described them as being akin to the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution! And it was the Reagan Administration that encouraged Saudi Arabia to send Wahabbi zealots to wage a jehad against the "Evil Empire" in Afghanistan. The Commission concludes that the Clinton Administration lacked a coherent approach to deal with global terrorism following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. This outrage was followed by attacks and attempts by the Al Qaeda to strike at American forces, New York City, diplomatic missions, civil airlines and assets in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen.

The 9/11 report establishes that the Clinton Administration lacked the imagination and the will to take decisive action against the Taliban and its backers in the ISI. There is, however, no logical reason given on why the Clinton Administration was so squeamish and reluctant in assisting the Northern Alliance led by the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood to oust the Taliban. Did the American oil companies interested in exporting the gas resources of Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan hold back the Administration from acting decisively? The Commission also ignores the crucial role that influential Americans and American Corporations played and continue to play in American Government dealings with the elite in Saudi Arabia — an elite that still promotes militant Wahhabi Islam and undermines unity and stability in pluralistic societies.

The Commission claims that it has been unable to determine who funded the stay in the US of the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. It ignores the information that Mohammed Atta the leader of the hijackers received a bank transfer of $100,000 from Karachi through Dubai — money whose origins could be traced to the then ISI chief, Gen Mehmood Ahmed. It has also been reported that the Saudi embassy in Washington generously funded the stay of some of the hijackers in San Diego.

The Commission implicitly voices scepticism about the Pakistani strongman, Gen Pervez Musharraf's pleas of innocence on transfer of nuclear weapons capabilities to Libya, North Korea and Iran. But it concludes that Gen Musharraf stands for "enlightened moderation" and recommends extensive military and economic assistance to his dispensation as: "Musharraf's Government represents the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan." The Commission does not ask why not a single senior Taliban leader has yet been killed or captured, even though the American forces have been actively involved in Afghanistan for nearly three years now. The notion that Gen Musharraf stands for "enlightened moderation" is somewhat odd as the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, and the President, Mr Hamid Karzai, have repeatedly asserted that the Taliban continue to receive haven and support on Pakistan soil. Further, no inconvenient questions are asked about how groups that advocate violent jehad and are linked to the Al Qaeda, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to function actively in Gen Musharraf's Pakistan.

As the 9/11 Commission enjoyed bipartisan support, its views appear to reflect an approach that will be sustained, irrespective of who wins the Presidential elections in the US. Given the almost uniform aversion across Iraq to American military involvement there, it is evident that the next Administration in Washington will attach the highest priority to seeking an early and viable exit strategy from that country. One can only hope that in the process there will be no adverse fallout in neighbouring Gulf Arab countries where nearly four million Indians reside, or on global oil supplies. But it now appears that there will be a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan. And given the evidence that the Taliban continues to receive support within Pakistan, Gen Musharraf will be involved in a delicate balancing act of attempting to please the Americans by military operations against the Al Qaeda, on the one hand, while continuing to support the Taliban on the other.

It is also evident that while the Americans will squeeze Saudi Arabia to cut off funding to organisations that threaten their interests, they may not take the same interest in applying pressure on Saudi Arabia to crack down on supporters of groups such as the Lashkar-e- Taiba that even now have an active presence there.

Given their presence and involvement in Afghanistan, the Americans would not like Gen Musharraf to provoke any serious tensions with India. Hence, they will continue to urge him to clamp down on cross-border terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in his country. Given his known predilections, Gen Musharraf is unlikely to fully oblige his American mentors on this score. New Delhi would have to constantly bear this in mind as it moves ahead with its "composite dialogue" with Pakistan.

Gen Musharraf demands that the Kashmir issue should be resolved within a "reasonable time frame", as though resolving the Kashmir issue is akin to conducting a tactical military exercise with strict time limits, in the Pakistan military Staff College in Quetta.

He has also assured India and the international community that he will not permit Pakistan soil to be used as a springboard for terrorism. This has not happened. Should Kabul and New Delhi, in turn, not ask Gen Musharraf a "time frame" on when he will end support for the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan and for Jehadi groups acting in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India? The 9/11 Commission, after all, says the General stands for "enlightened moderation"!!

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

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