NEW YORK—"You're either with us, or against us." Bush had his then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, deliver that stark message to Pervez Musharraf after 9/11. "Be prepared to be bombed," Musharraf says Powell's No. 2 at State, Richard Armitage, told him. "Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age." Faced with that bleak choice, the military dictator promised Pakistan's cooperation in the "war on terror."
Like Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi codenamed "Curveball," Musharraf was nothing more than a con man. He collected $10 billion from American taxpayers. Six years later, all we have to show for it is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, alleged al-Qaida strategist, poster boy for waterboarding and a candidate for worst morning face ever. But don't blame the general for selling us a line of crap. Allying himself "with us" was never an option.
In October 1999, I was traveling along the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar in western China to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. As my bus crossed the high-altitude Khunjerab Pass from China, we were startled to find the Pakistani border unguarded. The passport control station had been abandoned in such haste the door was wide open. A cup of lukewarm tea sat on the registration desk. The bus driver shrugged. We drove on into the "Northern Areas"—the section of Kashmir that had been on Pakistan's side of the ceasefire line at the end of its 1965 war with India. A few hundred miles south in Islamabad, Musharraf had just overthrown Nawaz Sharif, the democratically elected prime minister. The two men had spent the summer blaming each other for a disastrous offensive against India. Musharraf settled the dispute by jailing and torturing Sharif—and launching a desperate attempt to win the Kargil Conflict, known as the Third Kashmir War.
Opening Kashmir's border with China was beside the point. The real action was taking place at the newly open frontier with Afghanistan, where agents of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) invited the Taliban to send thousands of jihadis into the Northern Areas to fight India before winter brought an end to the war season. As usual, Pakistan claimed it was too poor and weak to man its border posts and stop its proxy fighters.
Before long my bus was passing columns of Taliban soldiers on foot and riding pick-up trucks and tanks. Pakistani Kashmir, an Afghan commander manning a checkpoint told me, was under Taliban control.
The Kargil War ended in stalemate. But Musharraf's first act as president was to forge an alliance with the Taliban and, by extension, his country's radical Islamist parties. The marketing of Musharraf as a bulwark against radical Islam and the Taliban is one of the biggest jokes of the post-9/11 era. He wasn't for the Taliban before he was against them. He was the Taliban.
I've been writing and speaking about Musharraf's pro-Islamist affinities since 1999. Perhaps now, with thousands of journalists, lawyers and political opponents imprisoned and Pakistan under martial law, Americans will take notice that he's no better than Saddam.There's no such thing as a "moderate dictator."
Actually, Musharaff is worse than Saddam. Despite occasional kowtowing to fundamentalists in Iraq's Koran Belt, he was a secular socialist who jailed radical Islamists. Musharraf's political prisoners, on the other hand, are journalists, judges, lawyers, artists and peace activists. "The first people to be arrested after the imposition of emergency were not the leaders of Pakistani Taliban, nor their sympathizers in Islamabad," wrote Mohammed Hanif, head of the BBC's Urdu service. "There was no crackdown on sleeper cells that have orchestrated a wave of suicide bombings across Pakistan."
The biggest joke of all was the war against Afghanistan, which has become a political I.Q. test. Most of the presidential candidates, the media and, therefore, the American people think Iraq was a distraction from the war we should be fighting in Afghanistan. In fact, the war against Afghanistan is less justifiable and even less winnable. If U.S. officials had wanted to catch Osama bin Laden, all they had to do was call Musharraf. On 9/11, the al-Qaida leader was laid up in a Pakistani military hospital in Islamabad. If the dictator refused, invading Pakistan—if you're into that sort of thing—would certainly have been more justifiable than Afghanistan or Iraq. A Pakistan War could have neutralized the world's most dangerous nuclear threat, established a valuable strategic American foothold between India and China, and—if we worked with the United Nations—scored us popularity points for restoring democratic rule. Such a war would have been far more justifiable than Afghanistan or Iraq. No country was more responsible than Pakistan for 9/11. Pakistan hosted al-Qaida's headquarters in Kashmir. Most of its training camps were in Kashmir and Pakistan's Tribal Areas—not Afghanistan. On July 22, 2004, The Guardian reported that General Mahmoud Ahmed, chief of the ISI under Musharraf, had sent $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Pakistani intelligence had financed 9/11, but the 9/11 Commission decided not to investigate our "strategic ally in the war on terrorism."
Since the Taliban were funded and armed by the ISI, we would have gotten Afghanistan for free in an invasion of Pakistan. In November 2001 Musharraf was asked on PBS' NewsHour why reporters were able to find and interview bin Laden. "Why can't Pakistani intelligence find him or help the United States to find him?" asked Robert MacNeil."There's a general suspicion on—it's surprising that maybe ISI is not contributing to the intelligence, yes—to the intelligence," replied the military ruler. "Now it's not that simple. After all, then you send in people. They're on the other side; they know who they are, and they know what they have come for ... It's not that easy that you send your operatives in and find locations. One is trying one's best for that—but if a reporter goes through contact—through some contact and, after all, Osama bin Laden's purpose is to project himself in some way and create some negative effects in the world, that maybe he would welcome receiving a reporter and projecting whatever his thoughts are."
Musharraf was always a huckster. Anyone who paid attention could see that, but that's the problem: We never do.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.