"Now those guys have been getting billions of dollars in foreign aid from our country and they have been playing us like a violin. [former Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf basically was not taking this stuff seriously and that’s going to change when I’m president.”
So I was told by then-Sen. Barack Obama on March 24, 2008. It was the first of four occasions I have had with him, each time focusing on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and U.S. relations with Pakistan.
The recent release of more than 90,000 documents by Wikileaks begs the question of whether President Obama, like his predecessor, is also being played like a violin.
Twenty months into the Obama administration, and nearly nine years after 9/11, we have yet to bring to justice the two al-Qaeda leaders responsible for killing of 3,000 innocent people. Officially, we maintain no military presence in the country where they are presumed to be hiding.
After the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, the effort to kill Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri was headed by Gary Berntsen, who led an eight-man team of CIA and Delta Force operatives. He later told me that his requests for help to block al-Qaeda’s escape was denied.
“We wrote a message back to Washington ... that said, ‘We need 600 to 800 Rangers. We need a battalion. ... We need to put them between where Bin Laden is at this moment and the border of Pakistan. We don’t want him to escape,’” Berntsen told me in 2006. Of course, Bin Laden did escape.
It was a sign of things to come. Instead of following the al-Qaeda leadership into Pakistan we stopped at the border. The Bush administration, at a staggering cost, outsourced the most important task in the wake of 9/11 to an unstable ally with questionable motives.
The Wikileaks documents, which span January 2004 through December 2009, are the latest to paint that picture. One dispatch describes a meeting of militants where a former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency encouraged the fighters to “focus their operation inside of Afghanistan in exchange for the government of Pakistan’s security forces turning a blind eye” to their presence in Pakistan. Another report accuses a member of the Pakistani intelligence community of running suicide attacks.
Instead of keeping our eye on those who caused 9/11, the United States invaded Iraq based on shoddy intelligence and to settle an old score. By the time U.S. soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in any significant number, al-Qaeda was largely gone.
At least that is how I have seen it for several years. And during our March 2008 conversation, Sen. Obama agreed. He said then that the Iraq war was a distraction that had allowed al-Qaeda to regroup and become stronger. “And we’ve got to do something about that because those guys have a safe haven there and they are still planning to do Americans harm and my job as commander-in-chief is going to be to protect Americans,” Obama said.
When we spoke a month later he said: “When it comes to military aid, we shouldn’t be propping up Pakistan’s military when they’re focused on a possible war with India and ignoring the very immediate and real threat of militants who are in their territories. And our aid has to be in some ways contingent on them making a serious effort.”
On Oct. 9, 2008, Obama acknowledged that as the war in Iraq winds down, the U.S. would also have to “send a strong message to Pakistan that we can’t tolerate safe havens for Bin Laden, where he’s training terrorists to kill Americans. We can’t tolerate it. Now we need to work with Pakistan to dismantle those training camps and kill Bin Laden. But if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to take Bin Laden out and we have him in our sights, we’ve got to do it.”
When I interviewed Musharraf in January 2009 I aired my belief that under his leadership Pakistan had been less than committed to wiping out extremists within its borders.
“\[T\]he misunderstanding here is that when you disagree on tactics, people here start saying that we are double-dealing,” Musharraf said. “No, we are not double-dealing. Double-dealing would be if … we have agreed we are not going to do anything. If you don’t disturb us, we will not disturb you. In other words, we are not after al-Qaeda and Taliban. No sir, we are after them. Fifteen hundred of our soldiers have been killed and we have killed I don’t know how many of them....
“Strategically, we are against al-Qaeda, against Taliban, any militancy, anybody carrying out suicide attacks within Pakistan. We want to hunt them down and kill them.”
The Wikileaks documents show that Pakistan was making some effort to fight terrorists, but they also confirm that Pakistan’s intelligence agency was undermining U.S. efforts. In short, the United States was getting rolled throughout the Bush years, and at least until Obama announced his shift in strategy in December 2009.
To its credit, the current administration has dramatically increased the number of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. A BBC analysis found that at least 87 drone attacks had been authorized in the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency, compared with 25 such attacks during Bush’s final year in office.
Pakistan’s efforts had increased as well. When I last spoke to President Obama a year ago, he told me that the Pakistani army was “for the first time actually fighting in a very aggressive way and that’s how we took out Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader in Pakistan who was also one of Bin Laden’s key allies.”
He said of al-Qaeda, “We’re eliminating their allies. It’s making it more difficult for them to communicate, making it more difficult for them to operate safe havens, and over time what we hope to do is to flush them out.”
But here we are, still at war in two countries where Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri aren’t. And we are paying the country where they are thought to be hiding, Pakistan, $1 billion a year to find them and their allies.
With what results? Last week, National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones called terrorist safe havens in Pakistan “a big question mark in terms of our success rate.” Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she assumes “somebody in this \[Pakistani\] government ... does know where Bin Laden is, and I’d like to know too.”
The implication, of course, is that the United States still cannot find out for itself. And the Pakistanis have either stopped hunting Bin Laden and his henchmen or refuse to tell us their whereabouts.
That’s not change. It’s more of the same — an increasingly ill-defined mission for the brave service members fighting on the central front in the war against terrorism, and an ongoing injustice for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001.
Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.