Head Strong: Debating Musharraf on hunt for bin Laden
For years, I have been critical of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as it pertains to the unsuccessful hunt for Osama bin Laden. On Tuesday, I had the extraordinary chance to voice my opinions to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a one-on-one interview.
I tried to be courteous but direct. I told Musharraf that I believed we'd outsourced the hunt to his government in return for payments that now total $11 billion, only to then have him place faith in the same tribal warlords believed to be offering safe harbor to the 9/11 fiend.
Musharraf wasted no time in telling me I was naive.
"I think, let me be very, very frank. None of what you are saying is true," he offered. We spoke for 40 minutes. And while I appreciated his earnest rebuttals, I found they confirmed some of my suspicions.
I remain concerned that Musharraf doesn't share our priorities - specifically, that he doesn't place the same weight on capturing or killing bin Laden as many of us in the United States do. Nor does it seem that he did closer in time to 9/11. In the months and years after the attacks, the former president told me, the Pakistani troops deployed to eradicate the forces of Islamic fundamentalism were not assigned the specific mission of finding bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The objective, he said, was to eliminate foreigners and al-Qaeda forces from the tribal areas.
"That mission certainly was not, 'OK, you will go in and hunt for Osama and Zawahiri only.' No, that was not their mission. Their mission was to eliminate any foreigners, the al-Qaeda, from that area, wherever they were," Musharraf said. "So in the process, if Zawahiri or Osama came in, very good, like all the other al-Qaeda leaders who we got, whether from the tribal areas or from the settled areas where they had escaped."
I never assumed that the Pakistani military was solely focused on finding the two, however, nor did I expect that such a specific responsibility was unassigned. We know the United States doesn't have troops on the ground in Pakistan tracking the duo. It sounds like neither does he.
I told him I found this lack of tasking particularly problematic in light of his 2006 and 2007 accords with the leaders of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where it has been reported that mutual promises were made for noninterference. Certain of those FATA leaders are from areas where bin Laden is presumed to be hiding. Musharraf himself conceded that the 2006 deal "fell flat" because "it was not from a position of strength as it ought to be."
He argued that the accord negotiated in 2007 was stronger because it contained four central elements: signers would eradicate al-Qaeda from their area; halt all cross-border Taliban activity; punish any violator; and specifically delineate a system to ensure that the punishments were carried out. He defended both accords on the basis that the Pakistani military killed hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers, and lost 1,500 of its own troops in the process.
I raised the relationship with the FATA leaders because of a 2007 National Security Estimate that concluded that Musharraf's agreements had actually given bin Laden's forces the leeway to regroup. And this view was echoed last year, when the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report with a title that said a great deal: "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas."
Musharraf said he made those agreements with tribal leaders knowing that half of them were potentially unreliable or worse. "Maybe half of them are double-crossing. But I always believe . . . doesn't matter, get it signed. This is the reason: Let them double-cross, we'll pressure them. But at least 50 percent, half of them will be on your side."
The former president said views such as mine were easily offered far from the realities of what he has confronted in the tribal regions - the terrain is vast and unmanageable, the people look the same and all carry weapons, and there are no defense lines.
"They are all fighters. They all fight. They are tribes, and they don't want [or] like intrusion on their area. This area, even the British never intruded in the area for three centuries. They never went in. The deal that they struck was only one road, no moving on any other road. They dared not because they were fighters," he said.
"All that I would like to say is, yes, it's very difficult to understand what I'm saying for a person who's living here in very settled and developed conditions. We can't even imagine what this area is and what the people are. We can't imagine what a tribal society is, uneducated. They are maybe living in Middle Ages; they are living two, three hundred years behind us."
No doubt that is true. And in spending time with Musharraf (two substantive conversations in the span of three days), it was easy for me to see why the Bush administration found him to be our best hope for stability in an untamed part of the world. But his defiant arguments and force of personality were insufficient to overcome my belief that, seven years removed from 9/11, justice eludes us because of flaws in our approach.
President Obama promised to bring change not only to Washington, but also to our approach with Pakistan. Many, including me, are anxious to see him deliver on that promise.