In a cleft stick

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

The Musharraf regime in Pakistan has been pressured into joining America's war. But at home it has to contend with a rising tide of anti-American sentiment.

THE American establishment and media just do not stop blaring on the theme of the world before and after September 11. It began minutes after the second plane dashed into the World Trade Centre, and for one residing in the capital of Pakistan it is just impossible to miss what the United States means and the change in its worldview.

As the U.S. prepared for retribution or revenge (whichever way one may look at it), against those who struck at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Pakistan was among the first nations it turned its attention to. Literally at gun-point, the military establishment was asked to stand up and be counted as a supporter of the new war on terrorism or be treated on a par with the perpetrators of terror. The U.S. conveyed in unambiguous terms that any reservations on the part of Islamabad would be deemed as a hostile act and the consequences would be unimaginable. Left with no choice, the military ruler and self-appointed President, General Pervez Musharraf, reluctantly agreed to be co-opted despite all the pulls and pressures from within his country. Musharraf indicated in his address to the people of Pakistan that the choice before him was between the devil and the deep sea.

Unlike in the past when Pakistan was only too glad to play the role of a forward-line state of the U.S. in South Asia, the Musharraf regime this time is a reluctant player. And for good reason. With anti-American sentiment running high and the prospect of being pitted against the Taliban in Afghanistan which Pakistan reared and nurtured, growing, the military establishment is faced with a formidable challenge.

It is not clear as to what would be the repercussions of the choices made by the General. The protest demonstrations by activists of religious and militant organisations across Pakistan on Friday September 21 reflect the degree of resentment among the common people against the military government's decision. It is difficult to hazard a guess at this juncture whether and how Musharraf will tide over the crisis generated by the terror attacks. As he conceded in his televised address to the nation on September 19, Pakistan is faced with one of the gravest situations since 1971, when the nation was dismembered and Bangladesh was born. In a clever and brilliantly delivered speech, he virtually told the people of Pakistan that he had chosen to side with the U.S. as the very unity and integrity of the nation was at stake. Implied in the statement was the likely danger from the U.S. and its allies if Pakistan did not join the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that shelters him, with the ultimate aim of ending "international terrorism".

While Musharraf made the choice within hours of the call from Washington, it took him eight days to take the nation into confidence on the factors that compelled him to side with the international community (read the U.S.) in its efforts to combat terrorism. The smart General tried the old trick of invoking the India card in an obvious bid to pacify the hardliners who were up against his establishment for choosing to let down a fellow Islamic country. In a no-holds-barred attack on India, Musharraf accused it of hatching a conspiracy to curry favour with the U.S. and get Pakistan declared a terrorist state. "Let us now take a look at the designs of our neighbouring country. They offered all their military facilities to the U.S. They have offered, without hesitation, all their facilities, all their bases and full logistic support. They want to enter into an alliance with the U.S. and get Pakistan declared a terrorist state. They want to harm our strategic assets and the Kashmir cause."

He continued: "Not only this, recently certain countries met in Dushanbe (Tajikistan). India was one of them. An Indian representative was there. What do these Indians want? They do not have any common border with Afghanistan anywhere. It is totally isolated from Afghanistan. In my view, it is not surprising that the Indians want to ensure that if and when the government in Afghanistan changes, it shall be an anti-Pakistan government."

"If you watch their (Indian) television, you will find them dishing out propaganda against Pakistan day in and day out. I would like to tell India to lay off. Pakistan armed forces and every Pakistan citizen is ready to offer any sacrifice in order to defend Pakistan and secure its strategic interests. Make no mistake and entertain no misunderstanding. At this very moment, our air force is on high alert. And they are ready for a do-or-die mission," Musharraf thundered. The General listed what he termed as four specific critical concerns and priorities that guided his government's decision to become once again the forward-line state for the superpower. These were: security of the country and external threat; the economy and its revival; strategic nuclear and missile assets; and the Kashmir cause. "Any wrong judgment on our part can damage our interests," he said.

But clearly the India factor did not work, for the fundamentalists continue to train their guns on the U.S. and the Zionist lobby that is out to harm the Islamic world. Perhaps no one is more conscious of the ground realities than the General himself. There is ample evidence of this in his address to the nation. He conceded in the course of his 45-minute address that some 15 per cent of the people were emotionally worked up on the emerging situation. It was indeed an extraordinary confession for the head of state to make in a speech to the nation.

Musharraf asked the pro-Taliban elements to think dispassionately. "We cannot make the future of a 140-million people (of Pakistan) bleak. Even otherwise it is said in Sharia that if there are two difficulties at a time and a selection has to be made, it is better to choose the lesser one." He sought to impress upon the pro-Taliban groups and parties that the government had done everything for Afghanistan and the Taliban when the entire world was against them. He reminded them of the relentless campaign by Islamabad in support of the Taliban. (Pakistan had been telling the international community that engagement rather than isolation is the best way to deal with the Taliban militia).

Musharraf made it a point to mention that the government had counselled the Bush administration to exercise restraint and be patient. However, this went unnoticed in the maze of other details.

It is worth recalling the words of the General on the sensitive issue. "We are telling the Americans too that they should be patient. Whatever their plans, they should be cautious and balanced. We are asking them to come up with whatever evidence they have against Osama bin Laden. What I would like to know is how we could save Afghanistan and the Taliban. And how do we ensure that they suffer minimum losses."

It was left to the Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Quazi Hussain Ahmad, who was among the first to oppose the possible use of Pakistani soil by U.S. forces for retaliatory action against the Taliban to point out the glaring contradictions in the President's speech. He wondered how Musharraf could pledge unconditional support and unstinted cooperation to the Americans and at the same time ask them for proof of involvement of Osama bin Laden in the terrorist attacks. The other point on which the religious and political parties are miffed relates to the decision of the military government first to announce support to the U.S. and than go through the motions of a process of consultation within the country.

Whatever way one may look at it, the coming days and weeks could prove to be nightmarish for the Musharraf regime. It is not just the pro-Taliban forces that are making noises: the English press, known for its sobriety and objectivity, has never been as angry with the U.S. as it is today. More than anything else, it resents the tone and tenor and the choice of expressions used by the Bush administration to declare a war against terrorism. The English press contends that the U.S. cannot escape responsibility for the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Having used the country in its proxy war against the Soviet Union, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to, if not actively encouraged, many of the evils that are associated with the Taliban regime.

As for Pakistan, whom many believe to be the very architect of the Taliban, the time of reckoning has come a day sooner than later. The bubble of strategic depth, the pet phrase of the military establishment before September 11, has burst.

The high stakes for Pakistan vis-a-vis the Taliban could be gauged from the fact that Afghanistan has been a crucial component of Pakistan's foreign policy for nearly three decades now. A furious debate has been going on within Pakistan for several months now on how the Afghanistan policy has been a virtual disaster. Pakistan has used the Taliban as a support base for its Kashmir policy. But it has affected its very social fabric. With the Taliban as a role model, an extreme-fundamentalist religious class is now posing an internal threat, while the Taliban itself is being adventurous on the Durrand Line in the name of a "greater Pashtun" nation.

This is precisely the dilemma that is staring the military establishment in its face as it braces to tackle the extraordinary situation in the aftermath of September 11. The dilemma is all the more acute because there is unanimity against giving a blank cheque to the Americans. Political, religious and militant organisations have all spoken in one voice against allowing U.S. troops to operate from Pakistani soil. Not that the people are happy with the Afghan policy. In fact the majority view is that the 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan is a recipe for disaster. The overwhelming public opinion favours preserving the national honour and not acting as a puppet of the U.S. One cannot ignore the sentiment that Pakistan's offer is perceived as a repayment for long-term U.S. policies in the region.

These are indeed testing times for Islamabad. It has to rethink its policies and strategies as old cards may no longer work in the 'New World'.

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