Captain Bush's great white whale By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - Pakistan has a big problem and perhaps only one of the world's
biggest names can help it find a way out: Osama bin Laden. With imagination and
cooperation from the United States, an agreement appears within reach that
would transform Pakistan's image, George W Bush's legacy, and the global terror
The radical attack in Mumbai, with links to Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) agency, has severely damaged Pakistan's international
reputation. The incident has nuclear-armed neighbors and frequent fighters
Pakistan and India almost casually trading threats and military alerts.
Asif Ali Zardari and his new government face mounting pressure to control
terrorists operating within their borders.
Even Pakistan's biggest defender and multi-billion dollar banker, the Bush
administration, is turning up the heat. The Bush people have invested tons of
money and prestige into recasting Pakistan as a responsible partner in its "war
on terror", even though signs point to elements in Pakistan partnering with the
global terror network responsible for strikes in Mumbai and beyond. Between her
piano recitals in friendly capitals, that heartiest of Bush loyalists,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has stated repeatedly, most recently in an
interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN Sunday, "Pakistan must act and must act
quickly" to help catch the Mumbai perpetrators.
Worse, Pakistan's Bush gravy train derails in a few short weeks, and the new
administration is nearly certain to turn up the heat further on Zardari.
President-elect Barack Obama said throughout the campaign that he favors a more
muscular approach to attacking terrorists inside Pakistan. He's also promised
to focus on the war in Afghanistan, which adds to the pressure on Pakistan to
police its border areas that harbor Taliban and other militants.
The Mumbai attacks show that years of military reorganization and
professionalization, plus the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf's regime,
haven't gotten the ISI out of the terror business. Pakistan needs to take a
dramatic step in response to Mumbai to convince the world that it has changed
and that it wants to be on the right side. If politics and reform are failing
to deliver the solution Pakistan needs, maybe history has the answer.
During an earlier US transition between presidents of different parties,
another marginalized country emerging from autocratic rule found itself in a
situation crafted by state-supported extremists that no longer suited its
interests, and it found a way out.
In 1980, as Republican president-elect Ronald Reagan prepared to succeed
Democratic president Jimmy Carter, Iran was holding 52 American diplomats
hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran. On November 4, 1979 - exactly a year
before the US presidential vote - radical students had seized the compound.
The attack followed Carter's decision, largely at the urging of leading
Republicans in the US foreign affairs community, to admit Iran's ousted Shah
Mohammad Reza Pahlevi to the US for medical treatment for what proved to be
terminal cancer. The shah's entry heightened suspicions that the US was
plotting to restore him to power, as it had in 1953. Ayatollah Khomeini, the
spiritual leader of Iran's Islamic revolution that ousted the shah in February
1979, approved the embassy occupation. As well as humiliating "the Great
Satan", Khomeini reportedly saw the takeover as a way to increase his influence
as Iran lurched toward creating a government to replace the monarchy.
Tail wags dog
Seizing the US Embassy overturned centuries of diplomatic practice that
recognized the sovereignty of overseas embassies and host nations' obligation
to protect those outposts. The government's complicity in the occupation made
Iran an international pariah. The occupation, and particularly the failure of
an attempted rescue mission, exposed Carter's America as impotent. A year into
what US history calls the "Iran hostage crisis", the two sides saw little
upside to continuing to let a bunch of radicals set the terms of their
relationship. Events helped the governments reach that conclusion.
In July 1980, the shah died. That ended the possibility of his restoration to
the throne. More importantly, his passing eliminated the most visible, if
largely symbolic, focus of Iran's grievances against the US.
In September 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. In this bloody eight-year stalemate,
Saddam Hussein would commit many of the acts, such as producing and deploying
unconventional weapons, that became a pretext for the US invasion of Iraq two
decades later. In the war with Iran, he committed these dastardly acts with the
full support of the US. From the start of the conflict, Iran realized it would
need to find friends.
US president-elect Reagan had the image of a radical military hawk, and there
was speculation about measures he might take to free the hostages. During the
transition, his team was reportedly working with the Carter administration on a
larger rescue effort. Perhaps the Iranians sensed that Reagan could be their
radical military hawk, representing an opportunity rather than danger.
After US voters decided Reagan would be their next president, the Iranians got
serious about reaching a settlement to release the hostages. On January 20,
1981, seconds after Reagan took the oath of office, the hostages were released
through an agreement hammered out in Algiers between Iran and Carter
administration diplomats. The timing was meant to be a final insult to the
Carter team. In reality, it kicked off Carter's extraordinarily productive
Remember Fawn Hall?
As unlikely as it seemed that January, US-Iran relations improved under Reagan.
His administration sent Iran's leadership chocolate cake and a bible.
Eventually, it sold the regime arms in a bid to free other hostages in the
Middle East and fund US covert military adventurism in Central America, an
episode known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Fast forward to Pakistan and the current US president-elect. The US and
Pakistan can help each other now. The US needs help in Afghanistan, and
Pakistan needs all the friends it can get. Moreover, both India and Pakistan
have forged their own versions of a strategic relationship with the Bush
administration. That puts the US in a position to help the two governments find
an accommodation that's less vulnerable to the influence of fringe elements on
all sides. The Mumbai rampage may have shown Pakistan the wisdom of that
As Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad has reported,
the Mumbai attack appears to have been carried out by rogue radicals linked to
the ISI. (See Al-Qaeda
'hijack' led to Mumbai attack December 2.) The fallout from the attack
vividly demonstrates to Pakistan that not all radicals are created equal. The
international cost of supporting or protecting some elements vastly outweighs
any domestic political benefit. For Pakistan, Osama bin Laden would seem to fit
that profile. Nothing could rehabilitate Pakistan's image internationally at a
more reasonable political cost at home, than Zardari facilitating bin Laden's
Tightening the noose
In addition to its international good citizenship award, Pakistan would need
pledges of continued aid, US help in resolving issues with India (at present,
Pakistan sees the US veering into India's camp), and a greater Pakistani say in
determining Afghanistan's future. These aren't easy issues, and the US
transition complicates matters, but agreement is possible. Afghanistan is the
trickiest piece, and in some ways the most important, since it's the scene of a
shooting war both sides want to end.
The broad outline for agreement is the US understanding Pakistani objections to
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime while Pakistan understands that the US
and its allies can't accept the return of the Taliban.
The key to capturing bin Laden, from the operational standpoint, is convincing
elements in the ISI (who'd in turn need to sell supporters in the tribal areas
on this point) that Pakistan's government can best protect their interests and
vie for international support in the struggle with India by making this grand,
global gesture, at the expense of a foreigner who does Pakistan little good.
Any deal would give Pakistan the freedom to orchestrate bin Laden's capture in
a way that's most palatable to domestic audiences - perhaps the rogue elements
behind the Mumbai attacks or others would bear his fingerprints - while getting
full credit globally. Bin Laden's capture would also bring no immediate benefit
to India nor disrupt any Pakistani operations against its neighbor, lessening
the domestic fallout.
The Mumbai attacks at least temporarily revived Bush administration engagement
in the region, and when the subject is Pakistan, bin Laden is never far from
the focus. He remains the Bush administration's great white whale, just as the
hostages were Carter's. Bin Laden's capture would radically revise final
impressions of the Bush administration as well as history's verdict on it.
The big question is whether this administration can match the professionalism,
skill and dedication of Carter's team in its final weeks to bring about an
agreement that will benefit the long term interests of the US, Pakistan and
enemies of terrorism everywhere. Looking at the cast in this drama, it seems
less likely that we'll see bin Laden in handcuffs than Rice and Bush walking
hand in hand into the sunset tethered to a final, phenomenal foreign policy
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
high finance and cheap lingerie.