September 17, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Amir Mir

Amir Mir on Pakistan's dilemma
Hobson's Choice

Many years of flawed policy and many years of failure to address mounting problems have finally left Pakistan staring at a steep and rocky path leading up a mountain. Under what several insiders describe as "the most compelling pressure," Pakistan has opted to co-operate with the United States in action against Afghanistan.

The change in its policy towards the Taleban regime, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, is sudden and has come under duress. The situation clearly places Pakistan in an embarrassing position given the almost unseemly haste with which US demands were met.

A Pakistan delegation led by Inter Services Intelligence director Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed left for Kandahar on Monday to persuade the Taleban leadership to hand over Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden to the United States.

The decision to send a delegation was taken at a meeting presided over by President Pervez Musharraf, after US President George W Bush phoned him seeking Pakistan's help. Ahmed is believed to be carrying a clear message from Washington that the Taleban had no alternative but to hand over bin Laden within the next three days.

Pakistan's military leadership is hoping against hope that the delegation can convince the Taleban in a last-ditch effort to ward off the impending US-led attack on Afghanistan. However, the deteriorating relations between the two nations leave very little hope that the initiative will be successful.

Ahmed, who was in Washington when the US faced its morning of terror, had been told in no uncertain terms by American officials what the mood in the US is. The Pakistan delegation had a one-point agenda -- to ask the Taleban to hand over the Saudi dissident or face the wrath of the world.

Observers did not rule out the possibility of the Pakistan delegation handing over some evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks to Taleban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, which the Taleban leadership has repeatedly demanded from the US to enable it to consider his extradition to a third country. An Afghan embassy spokesman in Islamabad reiterated his country's condition for bin Laden's extradition, saying unless there is concrete evidence that he is involved in terrorism, handing him over to a third country would be against the norms of the Islamic brotherhood.

For Pakistan the considerations to convince the Taleban are domestic, regional and global. Unlike the Zia-ul Haq government, which used a turbulent Afghanistan to its narrow advantage, the Musharraf government expects no such benefit flowing from another war inside Afghanistan. Pakistan decision-makers are worried about a severe domestic backlash from the Taleban lobbies in the nation's mosques and bazaars. Already, protest rallies against the anticipated US strikes are being staged all over the country. More demonstrations are being planned by the religious, sectarian and jehadi organisations. Analysts believe the rallies are just the tip of the iceberg of more trouble that could erupt after the US military operation begins.

Law enforcement agencies have been given additional powers. A full-fledged internal security plan, prepared at general headquarters and approved by Musharraf, is in place. The governors of all four provinces, along with the respective army corps commanders, have been asked to meet with any exceptional law and order situation. They have been asked to use force where necessary. Even more stringent measures have been taken for Karachi and the border areas of the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan where Afghan refugees are present in the thousands. Special monitoring and surveillance of sectarian groups is being conducted. The fear, however, is that all this may not be enough.

The Pakistan air force has decided to instal a radar system at the strategic hilltop of Laram valley in the lower Dir district, while the Taleban administration of Kunar province sealed the Pakistan-Afghan border at two points along the Bajaur agency for vehicular traffic. Work was taken in hand to instal a radar system and monitor aircraft movement in Pakistan's airspace and along the border. The nine-kilometre long road from Ouch near Chakdara to the top is also being repaired for the purpose, sources said. The installation on Laram was maintained in 1987-88 when jet attacks resulted in casualties in the Dogie village of Dir district. The radar was removed when the Zarb-i- Momin military exercises were started.

Just as worrying are regional concerns for the Musharraf government. Pakistan is mortally afraid that the facilities it grants US troops will be misused. Military analysts say Pakistan will bear the brunt of a full-fledged military operation because of its geographic proximity to Afghanistan. More precisely, when the operation commences, the sheer scale and confusion it may generate can afford, according to senior military officers, an opportunity to sabotage Pakistan's nuclear installations. This is the reason why extra measures have been taken to guard these installations.

The air force has been instructed to hunt down any aerial danger in Pakistan's air space. The details of which air path US-led forces can use have been worked out; some routes are out of bounds for alien aircraft. Pakistan policy-makers are also concerned about the possibility of an accidental or misfired hit at any of the nation's vital installations.

The military establishment has taken seriously the Taleban threat delivered by its ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef, of invading any country that provides bases or air space to the American-led strike force. A foreign office spokesman said the Pakistan government is extremely disappointed with this statement. "We see this as audacious and uncalled for, and a sad reflection on the sense of gratitude the Taleban should have, considering that Pakistan, at grave risk to its own image, has been sticking its neck out for them," the spokesman said.

Pakistani officials see in the threat potential for the Taleban to use its links with the madrasas inside Pakistan to create upheaval and unrest. Pakistan's military establishment believes there is a real danger of sectarian terrorism erupting in the wake of the US strikes because the Taleban harbours some of the most wanted criminals from Pakistan on Afghan soil.

Political analysts say Pakistan is equally concerned about the new political arrangement in Afghanistan. For decades Pakistan has invested in the policy of having a friendly government in Afghanistan, and the Taleban, when it had not become an international pariah, was the closest that came to that idea. However, with the Taleban likely to be destroyed as a political entity in the wake of the US strikes and the movement disintegrating along tribal lines, the emerging scenario could lead to a political arrangement that would not fit Pakistan's agenda.

Pakistan officials hope they will be able to influence the shape of the new Afghanistan government, if it did come to that pass. In fact, this is one of the many issues Pakistan has put forward to the US in its discussions with Washington.

However, it is not clear what the international community's response will be to Pakistan's proposal of playing such a role. Of late, Islamabad has been, rightly or wrongly, seen by a majority of countries around the world as part of the problem in Afghanistan.

The immediate concern for the Musharraf government is US pressure. Musharraf's associates say the general is under tremendous pressure because "events are moving at a bewildering pace." Saturday night's telephone call from Bush was not just to thank Musharraf on Pakistan's support, but to ask what Pakistan had decided on providing logistical assistance to the military operation. The US wants a decision and a final detailed yes according to its plans, not all of which have been shared with Pakistan.

Pakistan, according to some officials, wants the US to provide it with some incentives: Economic and military assistance, removal of the post-May 1998 sanctions, debt relief, an active role in helping it to solve the Kashmir problem and no Indian and Israeli role in the military operation.

After his conversation with Bush, Musharraf reportedly informed his associates that Pakistan could give the US logistical support, even allow US ships to dock along its coast. Revealing details of his conversation with his American counterpart, Musharraf told aides he received the impression that the US would look to Pakistan for logistical support in prosecuting the first war of the 21st century.

Bush is learnt to have said that the US wants to base its troops either in Pakistan or Afghanistan, besides having access to Pakistan's coast to reach landlocked Afghanistan. Sources said the general had not raised specific demands from the Pakistan side, but stressed to Bush that including India or Israel in a force against Afghanistan would make it extremely difficult for Pakistan to play any role in the operation.

Also see:
Terrorism in America: The complete coverage

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