Were We All Wrong About Pakistan, Too?

March 1, 2004 • Commentary

The revelation that a leading Pakistani scientist has been running a smuggling operation that provided nuclear military designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, has ignited “Shocked! Shocked! Shocked!” outcries in Washington. After all, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear military program is a national hero in a country that President Bush has described as a key “ally” of the United States in the war against terrorism and the campaign to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And Khan was a close associate of President Pervez Musharraf, the recipient of huge amounts of American military and economic aid.

As with the failure to discover WMD in Iraq and the White House admission that there is no evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam, officials, lawmakers, and journalists now want to examine why U.S. intelligence wasn’t able to figure out what was happening in Iraq and Pakistan.

In a way, there has been a common element in the story lines advanced by the Bush administration, its political allies in Congress, and the media to explain why we were wrong in assuming that Iraq was a WMD threat and Pakistan wasn’t. They seem to suggest that if only “we” had more access to information about what Saddam was thinking and what Musharraf was doing, well, we could have then been able to connect the dots.

But the problems Americans faced in Pakistan, like those in Iraq, had little to do with our ability to get accurate information that would have permitted us to develop the necessary policies. In both cases, the Bush administration made up its mind following 9/11 to pursue specific policies–to support Musharraf and to oust Saddam–that reflected certain distorted frames of reality: a nuclear Iraq, with ties to the 9/11 terrorists, was at the center of the web of anti‐​American radical Islamic terrorism, while Pakistan was committed to rid the world of those same threats. Iraq was the villain; Pakistan was the good guy. Any news that couldn’t be integrated into this neo‐​conservative narrative was downplayed.

But you didn’t have to be a covert U.S. intelligence operator to find credible and comprehensive information about much of what was taking place in Pakistan and Iraq. Some media outlets and think tanks have argued that while Americans have been searching in vain for WMD and for Al Qaeda agents in Iraq, they could have discovered those same threats in Pakistan, with its legions of bin Laden followers, plenty of links between government officials and terrorists, and nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of anti‐​American terrorists.

And these same information‐​gathering and research institutions predicted that U.S. troops would not only fail to locate WMD or Al Qaeda in Iraq, but also that the invasion of Iraq would create political chaos and produce a new wave of anti‐​American terrorism. At the same time, these experts further warned that Pakistan under Musharraf, whose military and security services had served before 9/11 as the leading backer of the Taliban harboring Islamic militants, was playing an active role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This kind of information would have led to the conclusion that Pakistan–not Iraq–was a central stage in America’s continuing antiterrorism campaign, and that by diverting scarce military and economic resources to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq, Washington could weaken its ability to contain those who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist acts and their benefactors.

By framing their policy assumptions on international realities, as opposed to wishful thinking, an administration committed to protecting U.S. national interests would have worked with other governments to ensure that both Iraq and Pakistan were not engaged in the proliferation of WMD and were not supporting terrorism. It would not have used its military to oust Saddam and it would not have allied itself with Musharraf.

It’s thus not surprising that those officials committed to the “let’s-get-rid-of-Saddam-and-be-friends-with-Musharraf” policy made sure that President Bush’s daily intelligence briefing was dominated by the type of disinformation provided by pro‐​invasion Iraqi exile groups funded by the U.S. government or by Pakistani officials assisting terrorists in Kashmir and protecting the WMD smuggling operations.

Dissenting perspectives provided free‐​of‐​charge were disregarded. Such dissenting opinions continue to be marginalized while the same people who gave us the failed policies for Iraq and Pakistan are now promising that democracy is spreading into Iraq and the Greater Middle East and that Musharraf is ridding Pakistan of “rogue” WMD operations.

But the truth is out there, if you just do a Google search on “Iraq” and “Pakistan.” And remember, while the information you get from the CIA, Ahmed Chalabi, and Musharraf costs a lot of money, an online search is relatively cheap.

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