It All Depends On Who You Ask

In the first chapter of Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, the author describes the destruction of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan shortly after the embassy in Iran was occupied in 1979.

A mob of what the neighboring British embassy staff estimated at as many as fifteen thousand assaulted and burned the compound while the Pakistani government sat on its hands preferring not to get involved. Amazingly, despite being nearly cooked to death, nearly all of the embassy staff and their families survived, with many of the staff holed up in a small, practically airless room for hours while the fire raged beneath and around them, and rioters fired guns at the door meant as an escape hatch.

Apart from the Iranian incident, another claimed precipitating event was the armed takeover of the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The student group who called for the Islamabad embassy to be destroyed cited the Grand Mosque and the movement of US Navy ships toward the region as hostile acts toward the Muslim world by imperialists, stooges, etc.

Coll describes the situation this way:

That squad [a contingent of extra Pakistani police to protect the embassy] was in place on Wednesday morning when the rumors began to circulate in Islamabad, and later on local radio stations, that the United States and Israel stood behind the attack at the Grand Mosque.The rumor held that Washington and Tel Aviv had decided to seize a citadel of Islamic faith in order to neutralize the Muslim world. Absurd on its face, the rumor was nonetheless received as utterly plausible by thousands if not millions of Pakistanis.

Just how wack would those Pakistanis have to be to believe something that crazy? Here’s a former candidate for the Republican party nomination for president on a televised debate before the Iowa Straw Poll last August:

Q: Last week you said that, in order to deter an attack by Islamic terrorists using nuclear weapons, you would threaten to bomb Mecca and Medina. The State Department called that “reprehensible” & “absolutely crazy.”

A: Yes, the State Department–boy, when they start complaining about things I say, I feel a lot better about the things I say, I’ll tell you right now. My task as president is primarily to do one thing–not to make sure everybody has health care or everybody’s child is educated–my task is to do one thing: to protect and defend this country. And that means to deter–and I want to underline “deter”–any kind of aggression, especially the type we are threatened with by Al Qaida, which is nuclear attack. I read the national intelligence estimate. I see what they are planning. And I’m telling you right now that anybody that would suggest that we should take anything like this off the table in order to deter that kind of event in the United States isn’t fit to be president.

Don’t tell me that he’s the only guy in the country who thought that was a good idea, because I know I heard some other people saying the same thing.

A fun tidbit from the same chapter that reminds me of someone:

General Zia [the Pervez Musharraf of his time] had plans that day to promote civic advancement through Islamic values. He had decided to spend most of the afternoon in teeming Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, riding about on a bicycle. Zia intended to hand out Islamic pamphlets and advertise by example the simple virtues of self-propelled transport. And, of course, where the military dictator went, so went most of Pakistan’s military and security establishment. When the first distress calls went out from the U.S. embassy later that day, much of Pakistan’s army brass was unavailable. They were pedaling behing the boss on their bicycles.