Twenty Years After 9/11: Cost Of The War On Terror For Pakistan

Twenty Years After 9/11: Cost Of The War On Terror For Pakistan
The 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks ordered by Al-Qaeda on several targets representing American political, financial and military power are conventionally considered a turning point in world history. For the first time after the American Civil War of the 1860s a large-scale slaughter of human beings took place on US soil. The American administration was oblivious of a terrorist attack even though US intelligence agencies had been reporting an imminent threat from Al-Qaeda. 

Conventionally, US defence preparations were focused on incapacitating a massive ballistic attack by the Soviet Union; that someone could carry out a large-scale planned terrorist action from within US territory it seems had not been anticipated by Pentagon.

After all, trigger-happy Americans had blood on their hands of innocent Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians, to name only a few people who had faced their wrath in the most unequal wars of contemporary times, but none of them had hit back. That a protégé of American foreign policy purported to menace the Soviet Union would turn round and strike at its own patron was a rude shock to the superpower believing in its invincibility.

Al-Qaeda was different. It had come into being when the Americans in partnership with Saudi Arabia and some other states masterminded a worldwide force of Mujahideen indoctrinated with the Islamic zeal to wage jihad or holy war against the Afghan Communists and the Soviet Red Army which had been dispatched to prevent a collapse of the revolutionary government in Kabul. Muslim students in Western universities were goaded on to go to Afghanistan to fight infidel Russians and defeat the mighty Soviet Union embodying atheist ideology. Such a campaign brought young Muslim men from far and wide to Pakistan where they were trained and drafted into different missions against the Afghan government forces and the Red Army. Al-Qaeda consisted of those Arab volunteers. 

In a way, what happened after the Soviets marched into Afghanistan had been anticipated much earlier when the Cold War started lashing after World War II and ideological polarisation took place between the US-led capitalist liberal democratic camp and the Soviet-led socialist and radical nationalist states on the other. Some countries tried to find a middle path and joined the Non-Aligned Movement.

Al-Qaeda was different. It had come into being when the Americans in partnership with Saudi Arabia and some other states masterminded a worldwide force of Mujahideen indoctrinated with the Islamic zeal to wage jihad or holy war against the Afghan Communists and the Soviet Red Army which had been dispatched to prevent a collapse of the revolutionary government in Kabul.


An implicit US assessment about the Arab-Muslim world was that it lacked a broad social and political basis for liberal democracies. The governments were led either by conservative Muslims or radical nationalists leaning towards the Soviet Union. The Americans, in close association with Great Britain the imperialist power with most experience of the Muslim world, consequently decided to strengthen conservative regimes committed to Islamic law and values to contain the spread of secular and radical nationalist ideologies such as Arab nationalism. 

Thus, because Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran had nationalized the oil industry and ended the virtual monopoly of the Western companies, a coup was masterminded by the British MI6 and CIA and the shah of Iran was brought back and put on the throne again. On the other hand, Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Iraq and Syria proved to be strong and stable and could not be dislodged. 

Nevertheless, the Middle East oil remained the main concern of the US and British governments which relied mainly on Saudi Arabia and Jordan to counter Arab nationalism while Israel was always at hand to ensure that US interests were closely linked to its own national and security interests in the region. The Americans in return made sure that the Arabs were defeated by Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Therefore, resentment against the United States existed not only among radical Arabs but also radical Muslims. 

Consequently, when the US-Saudi Afghan jihad was sponsored to defeat communism in Afghanistan among the Arab volunteers, many who nurtured deep grievances against the West. All this was lost sight of during the years from early 1980s and until the Red Army left Afghanistan in 1989. An inflated belief or rather a myth was fostered by Islamist ideologues that if one superpower could be defeated by Muslim zealots so can the second which backed Israel the main oppressor of Arabs and Muslims.

On the other hand, the Americans decided to exit from Afghanistan quickly after the Red Army had left. Such a decision notoriously created a power vacuum as no stable and effective government was put in charge of Afghanistan. 

What followed was a civil war fiercer and bloodier than the one fought against the Afghan and Soviet communists. This time round tribal and ethnic rivalries prevalent in Afghan society polarized into Pakhtun warriors in the south who clashed with their non-Pakhtun counterparts in the north. The civil war bled Afghan society white. Lawlessness, widespread drugs and weapon smuggling and the concomitant insecurity it produced created a situation calling for a strong force that could establish law and order.

It was in such circumstances that from 1994 thousands of pupils of the madrassas, which had mushroomed because of the Saudi-US funding and the Pakistani Army and ISI, were led by their teachers and ideologues to step in and restore law and order. They became known as the Taliban or pupils; they were almost entirely Pakhtuns. In 1996 the Taliban marched into Kabul and declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate to be ruled in strict accordance with dogmatic Islamic law, the sharia. 

A group of mujahideen

Now, while Afghan society went through a bloodbath during the civil war, many foreign mujahideen had decided to remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Among them a large number were Arabs. Osama bin Laden, the scion of a very wealthy Saudi family and his associates, organised the Arab warriors into Al- Qaeda. On the other hand, Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others were sent into the Indian Kashmir to militarily liberate Kashmir from the yoke of Indian rule but the bulk of such mujahideen belonged to the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad and some other outfits. The Pakistani so-called non-state actors struck targets even in India. 

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda directed its wrath to US targets, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1993 and US embassies in two East African capitals in 1998. On 11 September 2001, several teams of Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four US commercial aircraft flying to various US cities.

Two of the planes were forced to crash into the World Trade Center, the third hit the Pentagon, and the fourth—apparently meant to crash into the US Congress building or even the White House—crashed into fields in a rural county of Pennsylvania. An estimated 2,749 US and foreign citizens were killed, thus constituting the most massive terrorist attack on US soil.

9/11 attack

The American nation was totally traumatised; leading American politicians and analysts described the outrage as a declaration of war on the United States. In a CNN interview, senior diplomat Richard Holbrooke emphasized that, under international law, the United States was fully justified to retaliate against those who had so brazenly breached US security and caused mayhem and death on an unprecedented scale.

The US War on Terror

The United States immediately blamed Al-Qaeda. Initially, Al-Qaeda denied any involvement but, when inculpating evidence began to be unearthed and some of its operatives were arrested and confessed to their involvement, Osama bin Laden decided to change tactics.

In a video clip that was released by Al-Qaeda, bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks; he even tried to prove that, as an engineer, he had worked out the impact of the planes hitting the World Trade Center: that it would be of sufficient intensity to bring the two towers crumbling down like a house of cards. In the Muslim world in general, and in Pakistan in particular, conspiracy theories did a roaring business as so-called experts, talk-shows pundits, and hosts wove bizarre theories of the Bush Administration, the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, international Jewry, and cunning Hindus conspiring to create grounds for a major assault on Islam and Muslims. 

Within the United States, too, conspiracy theories were spun that suggested a sinister insider job ordered by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld trio to prepare a basis for capturing Middle Eastern oil wells. Later, Saudi Arabia admitted that, of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi citizens. The Americans also provided detailed information on some of the terrorists who had received training at flying clubs and schools. The conspiracies theories, however, persisted and proliferated.

In the Muslim world in general, and in Pakistan in particular, conspiracy theories did a roaring business as so-called experts, talk-shows pundits, and hosts wove bizarre theories of the Bush Administration, the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, international Jewry, and cunning Hindus conspiring to create grounds for a major assault on Islam and Muslims. 


The US demanded of the Taliban that they hand over the Al-Qaeda leaders to them, which the latter refused. However, they expressed a willingness to set up an impartial court in a neutral country which could try the accused leaders of the Al-Qaeda. That offer the Americans rejected. The Americans announced instead that they would remove the Taliban from power and install a democratic government in Afghanistan. 

On 12 September, Secretary of State Colin Powell called President Musharraf, who was in Karachi at the time and served him an ultimatum to the effect that either the Pakistanis were with the Americans or against them. He was given the following conditions to fulfil:

  1. Stop Al-Qaeda operatives at the Pakistan border and prevent all supply of weapons and logistical support to Bin Laden.

  2. Provide the US with access to Pakistani airspace to conduct military and intelligence operations.

  3. Provide to the US territorial access to all allied military intelligence against the perpetrators of terrorism, including access to Pakistan’s naval ports, air bases, and strategic locations on borders.

  4. Provide the US immediately with intelligence, immigration information, and databases, and internal security information to prevent the terrorists from committing further such crimes.

  5. Continue to publicly condemn the terrorists and curb all domestic expressions of support [for terrorism] against the US, its friends, or its allies.

  6. Cut off all supply of fuels to the Taliban and prevent recruitment from Pakistan.

  7. Should the evidence strongly implicate Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to harbour him and his network, Pakistan should break off diplomatic relations with the Taliban government and assist in the destruction of Osama Bin Laden and his network.

Musharraf claimed that he rejected the second and third demands as they jeopardised Pakistani security. What was offered was a narrow flight corridor that was far from any sensitive areas. Moreover, they were granted limited access, for logistics and aircraft recovery, to only two bases—Shamsi in Balochistan and Jacobabad in Sindh. These bases could not be used to launch attacks. Therefore, no ‘blanket permission’ was given for anything. After a meeting with his top generals the next day, on 13 September, Musharraf issued a statement, in which he said, among other things that he had ensured President Bush and the US government of Pakistan’s unstinted cooperation in the fight against terrorism. 

Pervez Musharraf with former US President George Bush

On 19 September, Musharraf addressed the Pakistani nation. Beginning with a he informed the people that the Americans were greatly angered by those attacks and had threatened to retaliate, and that their first and foremost targets were Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, as well as the Taliban for giving them refuge. He also mentioned that, for a long time, the US had been demanding the extradition of Osama bin Laden and his associates, for the earlier attacks on US embassies and personnel in other parts of the world. The war on terror was going to be a protracted one.

The Americans were not calling it a war on Islam or on the people of Afghanistan; it was a war on terrorists. Musharraf stated, further, that Pakistan had been contacted to help the campaign in three ways—with intelligence and information, permission to use Pakistani airspace, and general logistical support. The US was going to launch a concerted campaign with the help of a UN Security Council resolution; it enjoyed the support of the UN General Assembly as well. Musharraf added that many Islamic countries had supported the UN resolution. 

On 7 October 2001, the United States, the UK, and the Afghan Northern Alliance jointly launched an attack on the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda. Operation Enduring Freedom proved to be highly successful in its initial phases. The relentless aerial bombing proved too overwhelming; the Taliban decamped, rather quickly, from Kabul on 13 November and the Northern Alliance took over.

In December 2001, an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the UN Security Council with a mandate to secure Kabul and its surrounding areas. 

Terrorism wreaks havoc on Pakistan

For the Islamists, super hawks, and ultra-nationalists, Musharraf had forfeited his claim to be a patriot the day he meekly joined hands with George W Bush to wage war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In December 2001, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and his wife, Marianne, arrived in Pakistan to interview a religious figure in connection with a failed attempt by a British citizen who had recently converted to Islam, Richard Reed, to carry out a mid-flight explosion while flying from Britain to the United States—having hidden the explosive device in his shoes. Apparently, Daniel Pearl was investigating another story as well. While in Karachi, he was kidnapped, tortured, and executed. His horrific execution was displayed on the internet—he was seen confessing about his Jewish origins before he was beheaded. The story immediately made headlines all over the world. 

Daniel Pearl during captivity

From early 2002 onwards, Pakistan till well into the next decade went through terrorist attacks including suicide bombing Pakistan claimed were ordered by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP and their Pakistani affiliates targeted government offices and military installations, the police, intelligence offices, even the General Head Quarters of the Pakistan Army but also ordinary people in the streets and busy places. Some 70 thousand Pakistanis are believed to have been killed in such outrages. 

The slaying of Osama bin Laden

Finally, in the early hours of 2 May 2011, the United States Special Forces raided Abbottabad, a garrison town where Osama bin Laden had been hiding. They killed him and some others who were present in the premises where bin Laden had been hiding and carried away their dead bodies. The Americans claimed that they carried out that operation without informing the Pakistanis. Osama bin Laden’s body was never shown to the public; the world was informed that it was thrown into the sea somewhere.  

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: