On a trip to Pakistan a few years ago I was talking to a former general about the militant Islamist groups in the region. I asked him why these people, who had happily accepted funds and weapons from the United States throughout the cold war, had become violently anti-American overnight. He explained that they were not alone. Many Pakistani officers who had served the United States loyally from 1951 onward felt humiliated by Washington's indifference.
"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," he said. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."
The old condom is being fished out for use once again, but will it work? The new "coalition against terrorism" needs the services of the Pakistani Army, but Gen. Pervez Musharraf will have to be extremely cautious.
An overcommitment to Washington could lead to a civil war in Pakistan and split the armed forces. A great deal has changed over the past two decades, but the ironies of history continue to multiply. In Pakistan itself, Islamism derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism is the legacy of a previous military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who received solid backing from Washington and London throughout his eleven years as dictator. It was during his rule (1977-88) that a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools), funded by the Saudi regime, were created.
The children, who were later sent to fight as mujahedeen in Afghanistan, were taught to banish all doubt. The only truth was divine truth. Anyone who rebelled against the imam rebelled against Allah. The madrassahs had only one aim: the production of deracinated fanatics in the name of a bleak Islamic cosmopolitanism. The primers taught that the Urdu letter jeem stood for jihad; tay for tope (cannon) , kaaf for Kalashnikov and khay for khoon (blood); 2,500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when asked to do so by their religious leaders, Dispatched across the border by the Pakistani Army, they were hurled into battle against other Muslims they were told were not true Muslims. The Taliban creed is an ultra-sectarian strain, inspired by the Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. The severity of the Afghan mullahs has been denounced by Sunni clerics at al-Azhar in Cairo and Shiite theologians in Qom as a disgrace to the Prophet.
The Taliban could not, however, have captured Kabul on their own via an excess of religious zeal. They were armed and commanded by "volunteers" from the Pakistani Army. If Islamabad decided to pull the plug, the Taliban could be dislodged, but not without serious problems. The victory in Kabul counts as the Pakistani Army's only triumph. To this day, former US Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski remains recalcitrant. "What was more important in the world view of history?" he asks with more than a touch of irritation. "The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"