NEW YORK—Osama bin Laden, the CIA told George W. Bush in its August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing, wanted to "bring the fighting to America." The memo continues: "After U.S. missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington."
This reference may trigger the memories of long-time readers and listeners to my talk radio show on KFI radio about my September 1999 encounter with Taliban fighters in the Pakistani sector of Kashmir. A travel feature assignment about the high-altitude Karakoram Highway connecting western China and Pakistan turned into high-stakes military and political intrigue when I happened to cross the Khunjerab Pass into Kashmir during the same week that General Pervez Musharraf seized power via a military coup. Unbeknownst to me and most of the world, Musharraf's first act was to invite Taliban and Al Qaeda militias from neighboring Afghanistan into Pakistani Kashmir as surrogates to launch an offensive in his country's ongoing conflict against India.
Three Talibs, one of whom spoke fluent English ("NYU! Class of '83!" he beamed), pulled me off the bus at an improvised checkpoint outside a town where a minor battle was winding down. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had recently issued an edict directing that Americans, including diplomatic passport holders, were to be put to death if apprehended on Taliban territory. "We are sorry," the Talib said blandly, "but you are American. Therefore, we must execute you."
I pointed out that, when I had boarded the bus four days earlier in Kashgar, the place where we were standing had been more than a hundred miles from Afghanistan. I pointed to my map to reiterate. "Yes," my Anglophonic Talib agreed, "but sometimes Afghanistan comes to you!" We had a good laugh over that. Then, after assuring me that he wouldn't shoot me after all, he invited me to join him for a cup of milky chai. I considered the high-powered weaponry draped over his shoulders, and accepted his generous offer.
As is often the case when Americans travel in the Muslim world, the conversation turned to politics. "The worst thing about you Americans," I remember the Talib saying, "is that you never admit when you make mistakes. Last year, your President Clinton sent his cruise missile against a drug plant in Khartoum, Sudan. He killed many innocent people. Does he say he is sorry? No. The same day he sent cruise missiles against my country. Again: only innocent people were killed."
Actually, the Afghan strike had missed bin Laden—who had claimed responsibility for the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa—by hours. He was probably tipped off by intelligence officers of the Pakistani ISI. I didn't bring up these unpleasant facts.
"America causes misery everywhere—Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan—but not in America." His face brightened. "But no more. We are going to bring the war to you, so your country learns what it is like."
Bring the war to America: The same phrase bin Laden had used in interviews.
My would-be executioner didn't know what was coming; he was too low ranked to have known anything about the 9/11 plot. But a powerful message had gone out to Islamists: the days of beleaguered Muslims hunkering down as cruise missiles rained down upon nations decimated by years of brutal economic sanctions were about to come to an end. The jihadis were going on the offensive.
As the 9/11 commission winds down, Republicans are arguing that Bill Clinton, whose presidency spanned eight years from the first World Trade Center bombing to the U.S.S. Cole, deserves far more blame for the attacks than Bush, who had only been in office eight months. But they've got it wrong when they criticize Clinton for not being aggressive enough in the fight against Muslim extremism. If we're to believe the August 2001 intelligence assessment and the word of the jihadis themselves, we know why 9/11 really took place.
It wasn't, as Bush says, because radical Islamists are evil or because they hate our freedom. It was vengeance for 1998, for cruise missile attacks that scarcely raised an eyebrow in the United States even as the convulsions of rage surged through millions of Muslims. It's perfectly reasonable, therefore, to blame Bill Clinton for 9/11, but not because he didn't do enough. What led to 9/11 was a clumsy application of excessive military power and arrogance.
It's a lesson that the United States, so accustomed to swinging a sledgehammer to kill a fly, should take to heart in its dealings with the rest of humanity.
Ted Rall is the author of Wake Up, You're Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right, to be released later this month.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com