Echoes in Pakistan

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Although Pakistan has been rewarded well for its support to the West in its anti-Taliban campaign, the Musharraf government has reasons to worry about the ramifications of its decision.

THE worst fears of Pakistan seem to be coming true. Although there was little information coming from the war zone itself, the violent protests in major towns on the border with Afghanistan and even in Islamabad the day after the U.S. launched its first attacks on Afghan targets rattled even those who had anticipated them. Hardliners who are opposed to the military appeared to be in a minority, as President Pervez Musharraf pointed out in his press conference hours after the war began. However, it is anybody's guess if the military government would succeed in coming to grips with the situation or be reduced to the status of a silent spectator.

Musharraf had geared up for the protests on the streets and possible resistance from within the establishment. In a swift move that almost coincided with the bombing of Afghanistan, he replaced the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), promoted one of his favourites as a full-fledged General, and appointed Lt. Gen. Mohammad Aziz Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee. The moves led to convulsions within the Army. The ISI chief, Lt.Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, and the Deputy Chief of Army Staff, Lt.Gen. Muzaffar Hussain Usmani, whose seniority seems to have been overlooked in the round of promotions, reportedly sought premature retirement. Although Musharraf was at pains to emphasise that the changes had nothing to do with the developments in Afghanistan, doubts remained.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at a press conference in Islamabad on October 8.-ROMEO GACAD/AFP

WITH the identification of Osama bin Laden and his associates in the Al Qaeda as the main culprits behind the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Pakistan was under palpable tension. Within hours of the military government's endorsement of the "evidence" shown by the Bush administration about bin Laden's involvement, the United States' chief campaigner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was in Islamabad, leaving no option for Musharraf but to take the next logical step in the build-up to the anti-terrorism war. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Blair on October 5 and put the Taliban militia on notice that it should either turn bin Laden in or be prepared for its demise. It must have been a sad moment for Musharraf and the commando that he is by training; the President could barely hide his feelings. It was evident that all the patting and good conduct certificates from Blair did not help in relieving his tension.

In plain words, Blair made the General declare war on the Taliban. It was no mean achievement, considering the fact that Pakistan happens to be the only country in the world that continues to recognise the Taliban regime. Islamabad had not been perturbed enough by the decision of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to snap ties with the militia.

Diplomatic circles in Islamabad suggest that Pakistan is under pressure from the U.S. to end its engagement with the regime in Afghanistan. What the U.S. expects from Pakistan became evident when Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted, in an interview, at the possibility of the complete isolation of the Taliban. But Islamabad appeared to have stuck to its ground though it pulled out its diplomatic and non-diplomatic staff from its embassy in Kabul and consulates in different parts of Afghanistan.

The spin-doctors of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry sought to give a credible explanation for the country's continued engagement with the Taliban. They argued effectively that the Afghan embassy in Islamabad served as a window to the world for the Taliban to let the militia know what the international community expected from it and vice-versa. Further, they said, the United Nations and other organisations were engaged in humanitarian operations in Afghanistan with Pakistan as the base and a complete isolation of the Taliban regime could result in confusion and chaos. There are over 25 million people in Afghanistan and the Taliban controls over 90 per cent of the territory.

There is merit in the explanations offered by the Pakistan Foreign Office but the reasons for its engagement with the militia are altogether different. Pakistan has invested virtually everything on the Taliban militia. As Musharraf admitted in one of his television interviews, Islamabad has paid a huge price for its association with the Taliban but it has no regrets about it. Islamabad seriously believed that its engagement with the Taliban gave a certain "strategic depth" to its foreign policy. So it would not let the Taliban regime sink without ensuring the protection of its own interests in a post-Taliban scenario.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam demonstrate with a picture of Osama bin Laden.-PATRICK AVENTURIER/GAMMA

The depth of Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban was evident in the street protests that broke out in Pakistan within hours of the blitzkrieg on Afghan sites. Although it was clear from the arrest on October 7 of top Jamiat-i-Ulema Islami leader Mullah Fazalur Rehman that the government had anticipated trouble, it was perhaps surprised by the magnitude of the protests. So it must have been a difficult decision for the Musharraf regime to ditch the Taliban.

During his whistle-stop tour, Blair, on behalf of the U.S. and its allies, gave Musharraf a grand assurance that the international community conceded the legitimate concerns of Islamabad vis-a-vis Afghanistan. He told Musharraf that Islamabad would be allowed to play a dominant role in shaping a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The king is alive and long live the king. This seems to be the new mantra of the U.S. and its allies in their operations against the Taliban. Zahir Shah, the dethroned King of Afghanistan who has been living in exile in Rome for the past 28 years, is now touted as the best bet to preside over a post-Taliban regime in Kabul. The assumption is that only a Pashtun (a majority ethnic group in Afghanistan) can take on the well-entrenched Taliban. Zahir Shah is not only a Pashtun but much more. There are glowing accounts in a section of the Western media of the good old days of Afghanistan under Zahir Shah. Fransesc Vendrell, the United Nations Special Representative who has been trying to bring about reconciliation in Afghanistan for the past two years, recently extolled Shah's virtues and explained how popular the King was in every part of Afghanistan.

In all fairness to the King, it should be pointed out that in the past two years he has been calling for reconciliation and the formation of a broad-based government in Afghanistan. But his appeals had no takers. Now that the only superpower has turned to the King in its war against the Taliban, representatives of the world's big powers are making a beeline for Rome for an audience with him.

The Northern Alliance, which has been fighting the Taliban, entered into a pact with Zahir Shah for convening what is known as the Loya Jirga, the 250-year-old Grand Council of tribal, religious and ethnic leaders, to decide the future of Afghanistan. The Council, headed by Zahir Shah, has the authority to form a new government. As expected, the grand plan of the U.S. to install a new set-up in Kabul under the patronage of Zahir Shah has raised the hackles of Afghanistan's neighbours, especially Pakistan.

The military regime has serious reservations about installing Zahir Shah at the helm with the Northern Alliance as a dominant partner. Iran and China share these reservations to a large extent. They believe that the new regime would be a puppet of the U.S. and could seriously jeopardise their interests in the region. Islamabad's refrain is that it would not like a 'hostile' regime in Kabul and that the Northern Alliance is a "sworn enemy" which is propped up by its enemies such as India and Russia. There have been allegations that these two countries provide military and material support to the opposition alliance.

JUI chairman Fazalur Rahman addresses a rally at Chaman.-PATRICK AVENTURIER/GAMMA

ON the domestic front, Musharraf appears to have overcome the initial problems posed by pro-Taliban elements opposing his offer of "unstinted" cooperation to Washington. He had successfully convinced the U.S. of the need to tread cautiously if it wanted to avoid a blow-back and the birth of many more Osamas. As a result, the U.S. seemed to have realised the dangers involved in utilising Pakistani soil for any military action against Afghanistan. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Washington decided to hasten slowly partly because of the prevailing sentiments in Pakistan.

Musharraf seems to have extracted the maximum possible mileage from the West in return for his support for its anti-Taliban campaign. This is evident from the lifting of sanctions against the country, the rescheduling of debt repayments, and the generous offers of aid to Afghan refugees. The United Kingdom, which has been engaged in a slanging match with the military government for the last two years for a variety of reasons, has overnight announced complete normalisation of relations with Islamabad. The U.S.-Pakistan defence cooperation is being revived.

But the real question is whether the situation will remain the same, now that the U.S. campaign against the Taliban has moved into a crucial phase. Pakistan wants the action to be a short affair but Washington is talking in terms of a protracted war. How long will Musharraf be able to contain the hardliners if the conflict is prolonged? Can Pakistan escape the consequences of the anti-terrorism war, particularly in the context of its goals and objectives in Kashmir?

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