As Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, I happened to be in New York on that fateful day 13 years ago. I remember witnessing the ghastly disappearance of the Twin Towers from Manhattan’s skyline that was to change not only the world history, but also the global geopolitical landscape. We were in the middle of a prayer breakfast meeting at the UN Headquarters hosted by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan for the heads of diplomatic corps in New York as well as all UN agencies when all of a sudden the news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center reached us. We were asked to evacuate calmly.
As we were going down, we saw on television monitors in the lower lobby another plane crashing into the second tower, putting it ablaze in an instant. It then became clear that it was not an ordinary plane crash. It was an act of a cold-blooded atrocity. No one knew what had happened, and why. All that one could see was an inferno of fire and smoke. “Bloody Tuesday,” “Act of war,” “Carnage,” “Catastrophe,” “Heinous Crime,” and “Unprecedented Tragedy in American history” were some of the headlines used the next day in the American print media to describe the terrorist attacks against the United States.
The ‘belligerent’ mood of the administration was evident in its first call to the world. “You’re either with us or against us,” was the message, loud and clear. Foreign nations were given an immediate ‘black-and-white’ choice in their relationship with the United States. No doubt, the sudden disappearance of the Twin Towers from Manhattan’s skyline was to change the global geopolitical landscape altogether. The world’s sole superpower was overwhelmed by anger and lost no time in determining the nature and scale of its response. At the diplomatic front, the US was quick to mobilise international support for building an ‘international coalition’ to combat terrorism.
Besides enlisting Nato’s participation in this campaign, it got strong resolutions adopted overwhelmingly the very next day, i.e., September 12, in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly thereby paving the ground for the legitimisation of US military action against terrorists and their hideouts. Two weeks later, Washington was able to have a more specific and action-oriented resolution (UNSC 1373 of Sept 28, 2001) adopted in the UN Security Council on specific global measures to suppress terrorism through a UN Counterterrorism Committee. Since then, the world never recovered from the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.
For Pakistan, the 9/11 was a moment of reckoning. On that fateful day, it faced the worst dilemma of its life. Its options were limited and bleak. General Musharraf was among the very first foreign leaders to have received a clarion call from Washington. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, telephoned him late in the evening on September 12, asking for Pakistan’s full support and cooperation in fighting terrorism. In a sombre message “from one general to another,” Colin Powell made it clear that mere condolences and boilerplate offers of help from Pakistan will not do. It had to play a key role in the war on terror that was about to begin.
Facing domestic problems and regional challenges, General Musharraf took no time in pledging even more than the requested support and cooperation. On September 13, the US Secretary of State said that the United States was now prepared to go after terrorist networks and “those who have harboured, supported and aided that network,” wherever they were found. The same day, President George W Bush expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s readiness to cooperate and spoke of the chance that it now had to participate in “hunting down the people who committed the acts of terrorism.” The rest that followed is history. One doesn’t have to go into its details.
Thirteen years down the line, the Afghan war has yet to come to a formal closure. The world itself has yet to breathe peace. Throughout this period, the world media has had the challenging task of helping people understand the events, and in the ensuing war on terror played an important role to help provide wider perspectives of the aftermath of those attacks. The consensus has been that from being a ‘righteous war’ when it started, the US war on terror is no longer righteous as it still lingers on. Even the American media in due course of time felt that the Bush-Cheney decision to wage war was a big mistake.
The Washington Post once said: “In the name of the war on terror, we have invaded and occupied a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, we have emboldened our enemies, we have lost and taken many lives, we have spent trillions of dollars, we have sacrificed civil liberties, and we have jettisoned our commitment to human dignity.”
But was it an honest mistake? Did President Bush and Vice-President Cheney declare war because they genuinely believed it was the best way to guarantee the safety of the American people? Or did they do it in a premeditated attempt to seize greater political and economic power globally?
These are questions that history alone will answer. For now, at least one thing is clear. The US invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of 9/11 by waging an unrelated ‘war on terror’ which is now seen as a “semantic, strategic and legal perversion”. It forced the Taliban out of power but never defeated them. Ironically, looking back in retrospect, one is intrigued by the thought, however unbelievable it may be, that the emergence of the Taliban in mid-1990s and the post-9/11 Afghan stalemate might both be linked to the same ‘great game’ in this region which is known for its huge hidden oil and gas reserves. The real stakes in this war can be summed up just in one word: Oil.
As secretary general of the 10-member regional cooperation organisation called the Economic Cooperation Organisation which encompasses besides Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, six former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Afghanistan, I am familiar with blueprints of plans conceptualised during my period in early 1990s for an elaborate network of oil and gas pipelines within the region and beyond. Those regional plans remain unimplemented because of the ensuing war-led turmoil in Afghanistan. It is clear now that the Afghan war was never an end in itself. It was only part of a Central Asia-focused ‘Great Game’ that will perhaps go on with far-reaching implications for this vast region as a global hotspot.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2014.