Like most Americans, Wendy Chamberlin witnessed the 9/11 attacks via television, transfixed as one World Trade Center tower was afire, then a second jetliner dove into the other. She remained glued to the screen as both towers collapsed and the world was introduced to the modern face of terrorism.
What made her experience unlike anyone else’s, however, was that she was in Islamabad, half a world away, serving a governmental post that was about to be crucial to America’s response.
Chamberlin, a former high-level counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration, was the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time of the attacks, having just come home from her embassy office when her daughter summoned her to the TV set.
“We sat, stunned, and watched, like everyone else,” Chamberlin says. “At that point, it was very clear that it was intentional, and knowing the groups who were capable of carrying the attacks out, and that Al Qaeda was probably involved. And that our embassy was going to be on the front line of the response.”
The following days proved her right, as her office was key to gaining the Pakistani government’s assistance in U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan aimed at unseating the Taliban leadership and directly attacking Al Qaeda, setting the stage in a region that a decade later is still terrorism’s epicenter.
Chamberlin, 62, now president of the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., remains an expert on the region and terrorism and still helps shapes American policy for both. In that respect, she is one of several experts interviewed for the new documentary, SOS: State of Security, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is being screened locally this week.
Directed and produced by Michele Ohayon, the documentary examines the American security structure prior to the 9/11 attacks and U.S. policy changes since. Focusing on former White House security advisor Richard Clarke, who famously apologized to the victims’ families for failing to prevent the attacks, the film criticizes the intelligence community’s previous over-dependence on technology in favor of human intelligence gathering and foreign expertise. It also spells out the state of the American intelligence apparatus today, as well as its diplomatic efforts in stopping terrorism.
The film is being screened at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington and will include pre-screening dinner and a post-screening discussion with Ohayon and Chamberlin. The Foreign Policy Leadership Council of Cincinnati sponsors the event.
While past and current CIA and Homeland Security interviewees throughout the film make some daunting claims — that U.S. ports and public areas are still dangerously vulnerable (“I think America is going through a security theater,” Clarke says. “A lot of what goes on at airports, for example, does not pro vide security and is not really necessary”) — the film also provides a portrait of improving conditions. Al Qaeda is largely weakened, and the Obama administration is making strides in diplomatic fields where the Bush administration failed, among them.
“I think it’s a hopeful movie,” Chamberlin says. “The thesis, the theme of the movie overall, is that our national security is extremely important and it’s critical that we recruit the best young minds not to just the diplomatic corps but to the whole range of national security fields in government.”
The result of that thinking, she says, is already being seen in the Obama administration’s dealings in the Middle and Near East. Despite criticism of Obama’s troop surge, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent statement that the U.S. is neither winning nor losing the fight in Afghanistan and concerns over Predator drone attacks, Chamberlin believes a tide has turned in the region.
“I think we’ve got the right policy. Americans want instant success. They see we have policy crafted by the White House and a week later it’s ‘Why isn’t it working?’” she says. “The situation in the region is complex, and time will tell if we’re successful. But I think the administration has turned a losing situation in that region into a ‘not-losing’ situation. In this case, ‘not losing’ is success. We need to be vigilant, but we also can’t let ourselves be paralyzed by fear and let it dominate policy. That distorts the threat and distorts our response to it.”
Two days after the 9/11 attacks, Chamberlin was charged with delivering a diplomatic order to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. His nation was one of only three in the world to recognize the Taliban government of neighboring Afghanistan, along with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which had already moved to denounce the extremist regime. The message Chamberlin delivered, she says, was simple: “Are you with us, or against us?” Through the work of Chamberlin and her staff, Musharraf quickly became a key ally in the war on terror. Chamberlin left her post the following year to join the U.S. Agency for International Development, which led to a United Nations assignment before joining the Middle East Institute in 2007.
In the interim, she watched the situation in the Near East sour, fueled by policy changes based largely on fear of WMDs in Iraq.
“Pakistan was a very good partner for the first couple of years, but then around 2004 they became dissatisfied with our efforts and started to hedge their bets,” she says.
With an extremist government in exile next door, Pakistan had a worst fear: The U.S. would leave the job unfinished, and those extremists would come back to plague their Pakistani neighbors. Those fears were realized, she adds.
“In 2004, they saw us becoming more and more involved in Iraq, a war which they didn’t approve of and they saw as a diversion,” she says. “They saw all the resources going to Iraq. The A-team was going there, all the resources were going to Iraq and the troop levels left in Afghanistan were very low. So, they needed to keep some ties with these groups to protect themselves and they hedged their bets. They still are today.”
The result, she says, is a Pakistan under universal threat from extremism throughout the nation, not just to the west in Afghanistan.
“The extremist groups are a much bigger threat than the Taliban ever was prior to 9/11, or even in 2004, for that matter,” she adds.
Pakistan is working closely with the U.S. once again, following the Obama administration’s recommitment to the region.
Back at home, terrorism has evolved — or devolved — into a threat harder to track. With the larger terrorist targets engaged, a main threat doesn’t come from groups but individuals, she claims, citing last month’s thwarted Times Square bomb attack. That requires increased vigilance by ordinary citizens, and why it’s important to have a dialogue like the one she brings to the Carnegie on Tuesday.
“The front line in the War of Terror could be Cincinnati as much as Pakistan,” she says. “We won’t ever be able to eliminate the threat of terrorism. It can be understood, we can be vigilant about it, we can keep it in check, but it’s one of those fears of modern life that we’re now going to have to live with, like crime.”
SOS: STATE OF SECURITY screens at 7:30 p.m. June 1 at the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington; a pre-screening reception and dinner begins at 5:30, and a discussion follows the screening. Get screening details and ticket info here.