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Between Friends And Fiends

The US tough stance has Musharraf walking the tightrope

Between Friends And Fiends
Between Friends And Fiends
When the US Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Gen Pervez Musharraf on Thursday night, the Pakistani President found his option of a

tightrope walk gradually petering out. With Powell reportedly asking him to "stand up and be counted" and to offer, in real terms, "unstinted cooperation" to Washington's operation against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Gen Musharraf must have realised that strong words of condemnation against terrorist attacks couldn't possibly satisfy the world's only superpower.

But Musharraf's problems have just begun. With the US breathing down his neck, the jehadis have stridently opposed any move to offer support to Washington. The Lashkar-e-Toiba was quick to declare: "If the government allows Pakistan to be used for attacks on Afghanistan, it would be a great treachery. All mujahideen organisations would stand shoulder to shoulder with their Afghan brethren."

Indeed, Pakistan is faced with the arduous task of reconciling the US' growing expectations with the religious sensitivities of its people, particularly the jehadi groups. The military operations directorate has reportedly been asked to finalise a contingency plan on the impending crisis.

At the time that Outlook went to press, the generals were locked in a meeting to evolve their strategy over the situation arising out of an expected American attack on Afghanistan. The US has officially asked Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan, and the generals have requested for time to review the situation. Says interior minister Moinuddin Haider: "We're monitoring the situation emerging in the wake of any US strike on Afghanistan following the terrorist activities in New York and Washington. Pakistan's policy is to cooperate in efforts against terrorism. In this connection, there should be joint efforts under the UN Charter."

Sources in the military establishment say an important plank of the government's strategy would be to ensure that any international effort to challenge the alleged terrorist movement inside Afghanistan is not directed against Pakistan-based militant religious organisations, a scenario that would carry dreadful internal security consequences.

The US has already sought the use of Pakistan's airspace to launch strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and bomb Osama bin Laden's hideouts. Diplomatic sources say the request is believed to have been conveyed to Musharraf by new US Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, who presented her credentials to him on Thursday. The initial response of the Pakistani president was said to be positive.

Senior US officials have reportedly been holding unscheduled meetings with the visiting isi chief Lt Gen Mahmoud Ahmed in Washington. Mahmoud is expected to play a crucial role largely because the isi is known to have close contacts within the Taliban movement. Western intelligence officials feel the isi has the potential to locate bin Laden's secret bases inside Afghanistan. Sources say that in his Thursday's telephonic conversation with the US secretary of state, General Musharraf assured him that Pakistan would provide intelligence assistance for tracking down bin Laden.

The military government's spokesman, Maj Gen Rashid Qureshi, however, says: "Until the areas of cooperation are defined, we can't say (anything) on allowing the US troops to use Pakistani soil."

Meanwhile, the evacuation of UN staff from Afghanistan and the directive to foreign aid workers to leave Kabul have brought home the urgency to Islamabad.Similarly, people in Quetta and Peshawar are worried about the possible repercussions of American attacks across the border.

All regular and paramilitary troops along the Pakistan-Afghan border in nwfp and Baluchistan have been placed on high alert as a precautionary measure. The higher state of alert for Pakistani troops also followed reports both from Kabul and Kandahar suggesting that the Taliban leadership has ordered repositioning of its military hardware fearing a swift US military strike. Some reports reaching Quetta, and picked up by the Pakistani intelligence sources, said besides repositioning their light and heavy artillery, the Taliban security officials have also shifted the supreme Taliban commander Mullah Omar from his headquarters in Kandahar to an unknown destination. Says a senior intelligence official: "We've definite reports that the Taliban are now preparing to meet a major US military onslaught. There is a war-like situation in the Taliban military installations inside Afghanistan."

Taliban circles in Islamabad say bin Laden has already left his Afghanistan hideout because of the imminent threat of a US missile strike and moved to a secret base in the Hindu Kush mountains. The decision followed top-level meetings of the Taliban officials in Kandahar.

Amidst such hectic activities, official circles here believe Pakistan has no option but to cooperate with Washington unless it wants to harm its own interests. No wonder, within hours of the strikes in the US, Musharraf was quick to declare: "We regard terrorism as an evil that threatens the world community. I wish to assure President Bush and the US government of our unstinted cooperation in the fight against terrorism."

Says political analyst Nasim Zahra: "Pakistan's credentials as a nation committed to elimination of terrorism will be put to test if Osama bin Laden is found involved in attacks in New York and Washington. The task of finding and punishing its perpetrators is now foremost in American minds. Pakistan, a close US ally during the Cold War, is one of the countries that can make a difference in the global battle against terrorism. The Bush administration feels it must convince or coerce Pakistan's military ruler to withdraw support from the Taliban regime."

Analysts say the decision to support Washington could release forces quite beyond the control of the Pakistani establishment. They feel Washington would lure Pakistan in the global fight against terrorism through munificent offers of financial assistance, debt relief and lifting of sanctions. But the nature of demand on Islamabad would make it increasingly difficult for Musharraf to completely satisfy Washington.

As one diplomatic source puts it: "Washington's retaliation is likely to be with the full support of the international community. Under these circumstances, Pakistan would be hard put to keep an equal distance from the Taliban and the forces carrying out the attacks. It will have to take sides." Once it chooses to take Washington's side, enraged Islamist forces would take to the streets and turn against the military regime. Pressure would also mount on Islamabad to come down heavily on jehadi forces nurtured in its own religious seminaries. Any reluctance would then have Washington wield the stick.

Sources in the military establishment say this is precisely the reason why Pakistani officials are trying to convince the US authorities that it should distinguish between the people who perpetrated terrorist action against the US and those fighting to liberate Kashmir.It is being pointed out to the US officials that the local religious cadre had never acted against US interests in Pakistan and that their campaign is basically restricted to activities inside 'Indian-held Kashmir.' Although Pakistan-based jehadi organisations are known to have listened and obeyed the instructions of security officials, some feel that they may not be able to contain a violent reaction from the jehadi forces against the presence of foreign military personnel on Pakistani soil.

But columnist Hussain Haqqani cautions: "Pakistan will have to review its attitude towards Islamic militant groups in general. Until now, these groups have been treated as allies in the struggle against India in Kashmir. This will have to change if the US concerns are to be accommodated. Relations with the US have always been central to Pakistan's foreign policy. Pakistan can engage the US in support of its vital interests, including Kashmir. Or it can take the risk of incurring Washington's wrath, and create an Indian-American axis in South Asia to Islamabad's detriment. Pakistan has suffered in the past from its leaders' misreading of American signals. There should be no repetition of the same error again."

The hardliners, though, have not yet demonstrated signs of changing their stance in the new and precarious scenario. Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed describes the terrorist strikes in the US thus: "If at all anyone needs to be blamed, it should be those in the West who made an error of judgement and through their policies sowed the seeds of global violence as manifested today. Yesterday's freedom fighters are terrorists today and like chickens they are coming home to roost."

Adds Pakistan's former isi chief Lt Gen (retd) Javed Nasir: "If I were to blame anyone in this new type of warfare, without the slightest hesitation, I will point my finger towards the US whose discriminatory, repressive, one-sided policies of striking at Muslim countries and killing thousands of innocent civilians on biased, flimsy information fed by the cia has been the main compelling cause driving some frustrated individuals, whose families have immensely suffered, to undertake this extreme course of action. The US government pronounces judgement without any trial and decides to implement it in the way it suits its convenience."

Sources say Pakistan has been under pressure from the US government on the issue of bin Laden since President Clinton's visit last year to the subcontinent. The US reportedly wants Pakistan to allow deployment of American forces on the Pak-Afghan border. Sources claim that this was the reason why cia director George Tenet visited Pakistan in April this year and held meetings with the highest military and government officials. This request was reportedly reiterated in last week's meeting between Tenet and the isi chief.

Washington has reasons to believe that Pakistan holds the key in its campaign against bin Laden. In the past, Islamabad's assistance had enabled Washington to nab terrorists with relative ease. These include Ramzi Yousaf, who was involved in the first World Trade Center bombing; Ainam Kansim, accused of murdering two cia officials in Langley, Virginia; Sadeq Odehm, allegedly involved in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and Khaleel-al-Deel, who was the link between bin Laden and a Jordan-based Islamist group.

It isn't that the US hasn't tried to convince the Taliban on the bin Laden issue.But several rounds of talks failed to break the impasse between the two. Besides the Taliban's deep distrust of the US, they believe that handing over bin Laden to the 'enemy' would be perceived as a betrayal of Islam and irreparably harm the movement.

The reason why the US is seeking Pakistan's support stems from a cia report about the weapons bin Laden could possess. The report was quoted by Kimberly Resch and Matthew Osborne of the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, in their 'Terrorism and Osama bin Laden'. It says: "The current trial of Osama bin Laden and others for the August 7, 1998, bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, has shed new light on the efforts of bin Laden and his terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda, to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

The two researchers quoted the cia report to claim that bin Laden had forged links with organised crime members in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, with a view to purchase some deadly nuclear warheads. It talked about a particular meeting in which an agreement was negotiated by some of bin Laden's followers and a Chechen syndicate in Grozny. It was referred to as "the nuclear warheads deal". Bin Laden reportedly gave the contacts in Chechnya $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for approximately 20 nuclear warheads. "Bin Laden decided to have the warheads dismantled by his own team of scientists, which were later transformed into instant nukes."

Much of all this could be speculation. But the fact is that so little is known about bin Laden and his network and arsenal that Washington, obviously, feels Pakistan is its best bet in nabbing him without paying an inordinately high price.
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