Stand by Our Man in Pakistan
By Anthony C. Zinni
Washington Post, September 9, 2007; Page B04
As the turn of the millennium drew closer in December 1999, Jordanian officials uncovered a terrorist plan to attack U.S. tourists visiting Middle Eastern sites during the New Year holidays. They arrested the suspects and gained valuable intelligence on their plans and leadership. Washington went on red alert, fearing further plots.
At the time, I was commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East. Senior State Department officials asked me to contact Pakistan's ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to see whether he would conduct operations to seize the leaders of an al-Qaeda cell in Pakistan who had been identified by the terrorists now in Jordanian hands. Musharraf agreed, and his forces captured the jihadists. I was asked to contact him again to inquire whether U.S. interrogators could have access to those arrested. He said yes. Three more requests were made, and each time he agreed.
I asked the U.S. officials using me as a conduit whether, as a result of Musharraf's cooperation, we could improve our ties with his government and military. The answer was a flat no. I told Musharraf that I felt bad about this lack of appreciation and lack of understanding of the strategic importance of our nations' relationship. "I don't want anything for this," he replied. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."
That story sticks out in my mind these days, as it becomes increasingly fashionable to bash the embattled Musharraf. There's no such thing as a perfect ally, of course. But he was steadfast during the millennium crisis, and after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was fortunate to have a leader in Pakistan who was willing to take on the fight against terrorism. We may criticize some of his undemocratic governing decisions and his failure to prevent al-Qaeda's leadership from gaining a foothold in the volatile border area with Afghanistan. But we should acknowledge the price the Pakistani military has paid in this battle and recognize the political courage it took for Musharraf to wage it at all, despite its unpopularity with the many Pakistanis who think that the fight against terrorism is not their struggle and despite the vast array of political, social and security problems his government faces.
I am disappointed that our media and our political leaders make little or no mention of the numbers of Pakistani troops killed or wounded in this war. Their casualties exceed those of any coalition army, including America's, fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in South Asia. The cost of Pakistan's military operations has also hobbled the country's economy. Moreover, for two decades, the Pakistanis were left to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees after the 1980s jihad to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan -- the first Afghan war for which Washington sought their support. The aftermath of that war left many Pakistanis justifiably wary of supporting another conflict that could once again leave them holding the bag.
After 9/11, the United States seemed to rediscover the importance of its relationship with Pakistan, one that many of us had long thought should have been better handled. Unfortunately, before 2001, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship was strained at best -- the result of the poorly thought-out series of sanctions we imposed after India and Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests and of the residual Pakistani bitterness over the mess we left behind in Afghanistan after we drove out the Soviets in 1989. The sanctions, including the U.S. refusal to deliver aircraft that Islamabad had paid for or to return its money, still loom large in the memory of many officers in the ranks.
When Musharraf took over as head of the Pakistani military in 1998, I visited him for several days in Islamabad. I had learned to greatly respect the professionalism of the Pakistani military when I saw their gallantry firsthand during my service in Somalia; as CENTCOM commander, I came to appreciate the need for a strong military-to-military relationship to help ensure stability in the volatile region of South Asia.
Musharraf, like his predecessors, wanted to preserve the thin thread of the U.S.-Pakistani military relationship, even if it was based only on our personal friendship. This view wasn't shared by all of Musharraf's commanders or Pakistan's political leaders, but we both thought it was important that the connection -- the only real, useful link between our governments -- be closely maintained. Our bond was not entirely popular on the U.S. side either. I was allowed to maintain it, but only over many objections and reservations.
But when Musharraf took control of the government in a 1999 coup, I was told to break off all ties with him. He called me right after he assumed power to explain the events that had led to the takeover and to underscore his determination to bring "democracy in substance and not just in form."
Allies are supposed to be partners, not paragons. We will find ourselves in trouble if we insist that our allies do everything we ask, measure up totally to our concepts of how their societies should function and make no demands of us. Look at the NATO forces in Afghanistan, just across the border from Pakistan; are all of those troops, from 37 countries, fighting with the same commitment as Pakistan's forces are? Has U.S. support for the Pakistani military truly been enough to help it operate in the extremely difficult border environment where U.S. politicians urge it to confront al-Qaeda? Has America's relationship with Pakistan yielded sufficient benefits to persuade the skeptical Pakistani public to support mutual efforts to counter Islamic extremists?
All of us could have been smarter in handling the conflict with Osama bin Laden and his ilk from the start, and we need to continuously review and improve our efforts. I recently visited Pakistan again and had an opportunity to discuss the threat with Musharraf. I was impressed with his focus on improving border-control methods, training border-security forces and improving border-security cooperation with Afghanistan. It was clear that he is committed to doing his part to control a notoriously leaky frontier. It was also clear that the United States needs to offer far more support and coordination to let Pakistan and Afghanistan make this all work.
Both nations should avoid attacking each other and learn to appreciate the efforts and sacrifices that each has made in the struggle against their common foe. Careless, irresponsible statements can damage fragile alliances and erode cooperation and trust. They serve only to encourage our mutual enemies in al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who will use them for their own gain. Pakistan and Afghanistan must embark upon a more constructive dialogue. And I could say something similar about the U.S. debate about Pakistan. Unless we do better, we will continue to lose allies as a result of reckless, alienating comments that amount to short-term domestic political posturing and hurt U.S. security interests in the long run.
Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine general, is the former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command. He is a distinguished military fellow at the World Security Institute. firstname.lastname@example.org