Perhaps, by the time the 25th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks arrives, the United States and the world at large would be ready to pose the hard question: ‘Was the American invasion of Afghanistan really necessary?’ The propaganda would have withered away by then and what really happened may become comprehensible. What reinforces this optimism is that in the intellectual climate in the US, it is difficult to obfuscate policies and confuse historians for all time.
Take for instance, the interview given to Al Jazeera by the Taliban FM Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil who was a confidante of Mullah Omar and was most certainly in the know of what happened in the crucial exchanges involving Washington, Islamabad and Kandahar in the days following 9/11 attacks. WAM asserts that Omar was willing to compromise over the US demand to turn in Osama bin laden but the George W. Bush administration was simply not interested since it suited the US to opt for war.
This is also the impression broadly conveyed in the latest bunch of de-classified US diplomatic cables relating to that period. Thus, at a meeting between American ambassador Wendy Chamberlain and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on Sept 13, 2001, Chamberlain conveyed that the fundamentals of the US discourse on Afghanistan had already changed and there was absolutely no inclination on the part of Washington to have a dialogue with the Taliban any more on the bin Laden issue. Chamberlain effectively declared the Taliban to be the US’s ‘enemy’ along with Al-Qaeda. Hardly 48 hours had passed after 9/11.
By then, of course, the famous 15-minute conversation had already taken place in Washington between the then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the visiting Pak ISI chief Mahmoud Ahmed, during which Armitage gave the spymaster the “stark choice” - you’re either with us, or you’re not. The very same day (Sept 13), Secretary of State Colin Powell was on the phone cajoling Musharraf: “as one general to another, we need someone on our flank fighting with us. And speaking candidly, the American people would not understand if Pakistan was not in the fight with the US.” The accent was on the impending war.
The big question is whether the US could have gone ahead if Musharraf hadn’t caved in like soft jelly when he heard about Armitage’s conversation. The US invasion of Afghanistan needed Pakistan’s participation and as a military man, Musharraf would know that much. Maybe, some day, he should be made to sit with WAM in a TV studio (in London) and asked the million-dollar question.
After all, if WAM is speaking the truth, Omar would have signalled to Mahmoud Ahmed (during his consultations in Kandahar as US’s emissary in those days) that he was interested in a compromise. A US cable quotes the ISI chief telling Chamberlain after his second visit to Kandahar that Omar was a frightened man. The exchange took place in Islamabad on Sept 24, just 10 days after 9/11. But Chamberlain was dismissive, saying US “could not delay military planning.”
In yet another conversation with the ISI chief 5 days later following his latest visit to Kandahar, Chamberlain reconfirmed that the US “would not negotiate with the Taliban and that we were on a fast track to bringing terrorists to justice.” Of course, that fast track continues to run even today, full ten years after 9/11 — with no end in view.