College of Liberal Arts

9/11, Ten Years Later

Kamran Asdar Ali is associate professor of anthropology and director of the South Asia Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. This essay originally appeared in the web forum "10 Years After September 11,"  Social Science Research Council.

In May of this year, when Osama Bin Laden was revealed to have been living in the tranquility of a suburb in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy, it again brought to the surface underlying tensions between the Pakistani and American governments. The relationship between the militaries of the two countries is an old one, and the mutual suspicion is not new either. The latest process of close cooperation started, if we recall, when US and NATO forces moved to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. In this they faced an enemy that had its political roots in the 1980s, when Pakistan’s then-dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, had provided tactical and strategic support to train the mujahideen during the US-financed resistance to Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan.

When in October of 2001 I was asked to write an essay for the SSRC on the post–September 11 crisis and the looming war in Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by another military man, Pervez Musharraf, who for the next six years would be the United States’ main ally in the region. My essay predicted that Musharraf would have a hard time pushing the new US-backed Afghan policy, with the madrasa-trained forces that were nurtured by Zia (with US support) already resisting Musharraf’s allegiance to the US cause with sharp and violent protests. I argued that the situation could get worse as on-the-run Taliban and Arab-Afghans crossed into Pakistan and blended in with the support base they already had there. The serious question for me was how future Pakistani governments would deal with this process on top of existing Islamist extremism.

Indeed there has been volatility in the US-Pakistan relationship since the days following 9/11, when Musharraf acceded to US demands to provide logistical support to the US military and to share up-to-date intelligence on Bin Laden and his followers. The Pakistani state has sometimes pushed back, creating a national furor about sovereign rights (after receiving billions in aid from the United States), and at other times has aggressively pursued US aims in the region, sharing vital information and delivering high-value assets.

Bin Laden’s death is the latest episode in this back-and-forth relationship. In a post-Osama era, the pressure is already mounting on Pakistan to come clean, this time about its covert relationship with jihadi organizations and what it did or did not know about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The United States has asked for a range of guarantees and concessions from the Pakistani government and has sought to “redirect” Pakistan’s focus toward US security interests. Yet, as Bin Laden’s death brought a certain kind of closure for many in the United States, in Pakistan it opened unhealed wounds around the US role in the region and its implications for Pakistan’s own stability and future prosperity. These are important discussions (at least for Pakistanis) that cannot be trivialized with a language of geo-security, strategic interests, and rogue nations.

The recent upheaval and debate about Bin Laden’s death while “hiding in plain sight” tend to also obscure the long history of US interest in the region and that of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. Soon after its creation in 1947, Pakistan became enmeshed in Cold War politics. British and US intelligence agencies worked closely with the upper echelons of the Pakistani state to curtail the “communist threat.” Archival materials indicate that these efforts were at times directed by a secret committee in the ministry of interior that was set up at the behest of the British Embassy. One task of the committee was to employ Islamic arguments through the media to counter the anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan political stance of the communists. Interestingly enough, even in those early days, there was suspicion on the part of the British and Americans about whether Pakistani functionaries could get the work done and get rid of the “red menace” that was seen to be plaguing the country and the region.

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