Pakistan, the Taliban and the US

Pakistan, the Taliban and the US

If Islamabad heeds Washington’s war demands, it risks internal revolt.



Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, has pledged full cooperation with the United States against terrorism, but Pakistan will need to carry out a U-turn in its policy of support for the Taliban if it is to regain the West’s confidence and end its present diplomatic isolation. The stark policy choices the military faces may also require a complete turnaround from twenty years of clandestine support to jihadi parties and the growth of a jihadi culture, which has sustained its policies in Kashmir and Central Asia.

After having spent the past seven years providing every conceivable form of military, political and financial support to the Taliban, Pakistan is now essentially being asked by Washington to help the US bomb the Taliban leadership, along with their guest Osama bin Laden, and topple the Taliban regime.

In an immediate follow-up to Musharraf’s rhetorical pledge to assist the United States in countering international terrorism, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell asked Pakistan to take concrete measures to prove its sincerity. “We thought as we gathered information and as we look at possible sources of the attack it would be useful to point out to the Pakistani leadership at every level that we are looking for and expecting their fullest cooperation,” Powell said at a news conference on September 12. A day later, after mentioning Musharraf’s message of support, Bush said, “Now we’ll just find out what that means, won’t we? We will give the Pakistani government a chance to cooperate and to participate as we hunt down those people.”

The United States has given the military regime a list of demands in order to facilitate Washington’s expected attack on bin Laden. They are believed to include permission for the use of Pakistani airspace for the bombing of bin Laden’s camps, an immediate end to Pakistan’s supply of fuel and other goods to the Taliban, closure of Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan in order to prevent the escape of Arab militants to Pakistan and the sharing of intelligence with the United States about bin Laden and the Taliban.

The list is clearly only the first step in testing Pakistan’s resolve. More demands are almost certain to follow, among them US use of military bases, airports and harbors for the expected military offensive. Washington has asked for a comprehensive report from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) about every detail it has on bin Laden, including his contacts with Pakistani extremists, his use of Pakistani militants to carry messages around the world and his hiding places in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Washington has given the ISI a little time–“no more than a week or so,” according to Western diplomats–to see if it can persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and dismantle the multinational network of extremists belonging to his Al Qaeda (the Base) organization. Within days of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, senior ISI officers were in Kandahar holding intensive talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in a bid to convince him that if he does not hand over bin Laden, US strikes will also target the Taliban leadership. The chances of success are bleak, because of the close relationship between Omar and bin Laden. The Taliban have sounded alternately defiant and conciliatory, but on September 15, Omar issued a bellicose statement against the United States, saying the Taliban were ready to defend bin Laden and die. There does appear to be panic in the movement; several ministers in Kabul and commanders in the field have sent their families to Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan–indicating that they themselves are ready to flee.

Washington is thus for the moment adopting a two-track policy, pressuring Pakistan but at the same time giving it space to absolve itself of its past support for the Taliban and deliver bin Laden, something the ISI has refused to do over the past five years. Since September 11, Musharraf has been huddled with his top generals, giving no public statement of his intentions; in his two brief television appearances he has looked exhausted. After meeting with all his generals, his Cabinet and his National Security Council, the government has only said, without giving details, that it will stand by the United States.

Clearly, Musharraf has every reason to be worried. Pakistan has a 1,560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, and the United States would need Islamabad’s full military and intelligence cooperation if it were to launch an attack. But for the past seven years Pakistan has been the main provider of military supplies, fuel and food to the Taliban army, and Pakistani officers have advised the Taliban on their military campaigns. Over the same period, up to 60,000 Pakistani Islamic students, three-quarters of whom were educated in Pakistani madrassahs, or religious schools, have fought in Afghanistan for the Taliban. One year ago, when the Taliban captured Taloqan in northeastern Afghanistan, then headquarters of the anti-Taliban United Front, more than sixty Pakistani military officers and a small unit of the Special Services Group–Pakistani commandos–were supporting and advising the Taliban force of 12,000 troops, which included some 4,000 non-Afghan militants.

At present, 3,000-4,000 Pakistani Islamic militants are fighting with the Taliban in their offensive against the anti-Taliban alliance. Thousands of Pakistani and Kashmiri militants also train in Afghanistan for the war in Kashmir. Pakistan’s knowledge of the Taliban’s military machine, storage facilities, supply lines and leadership hierarchy is total. Pakistan also has the most comprehensive information about the role of foreign militants, their bases and their numbers. The United States is now asking the ISI to turn over all this information to the CIA.

If the army decides to commit fully to Washington, Musharraf will have to do even more. He will have to evacuate Pakistani military advisers from Afghanistan, withdraw Pakistan’s recognition of the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, condemn the Taliban and force them to expel thousands of Pakistani fighters, in addition to a cutoff of fuel and other supplies, at the very moment when they will be preparing to resist a US invasion.

Musharraf will also have to crack down hard on Pakistan’s Islamic extremists, who provide bin Laden’s Al Qaeda with logistics, communications and other support. He may also be obliged to ban those Pakistani groups, like Harakat ul-Ansar (Volunteers Movement) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed), that are listed by Washington as terrorist organizations and could pose a threat to US forces. The largest Pakistani party fighting in Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), is on the US terrorist watch list. All these groups have received tacit state support in the past; stopping their activities will be a major problem for Musharraf.

If Musharraf decides to fall in line with US policy, he will receive widespread support from the majority of Pakistanis–especially the urban, educated middle class–who are tired of the country’s dire economic crisis and the chronic lawlessness largely caused by Islamic extremists, and who are concerned about the rapid “Talibanization” of Pakistani society. In early September neo-Taliban Pakistani groups in the Northwest FrontierProvince prevented UNICEF from carrying out a polio immunization campaign for children because they considered it un-Islamic. The same groups have smashed TV sets and forced women to stay at home, as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Pakistan could negotiate major concessions from the United States for its support–the lifting of US sanctions against Pakistan imposed in response to Islamabad’s 1998 nuclear tests, a partial write-off of the country’s $38 billion international debt, more loans from the IMF and the World Bank, greater US pressure on India to settle the Kashmir dispute on terms acceptable to Pakistan, and the re-establishment of a close military and intelligence relationship with the United States to counter Washington’s growing military and economic links with New Delhi. However, many Pakistanis fear that the United States may just use Pakistan, as it did in the 1980s against the Soviet Union, and then walk away once the US mission is over, establishing a closer military alliance with India and leaving Pakistan in chaos. That fear is not only expressed by Islamic groups but also by Pakistani liberals.

What the military is most concerned about is a backlash from Islamic parties and conservative Islamicists within the officer corps, who will accuse Musharraf of kowtowing to the Americans. Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads a string of madrassahs that many Taliban leaders attended in the early 1990s and that are now attended by Central Asian Islamic militants, has warned Musharraf that there will be a huge public backlash if Pakistan bends to US demands. “I am sure the Pakistani Army will not allow this to happen, and Musharraf will be mindful of the sentiments of his under-command. There will be a strong public backlash also,” Haq said on September 14. Haq’s provocative comments reflect moves by Islamic fundamentalists to increase pressure on Musharraf from within the army. Several senior generals and former ISI chiefs known for their hard-line Islamic views have been even more provocative, claiming that the attacks in the United States were carried out as part of an Israeli-Jewish conspiracy in league with the CIA in order to give Israel a free hand to crush the Palestinians and defame Muslims.

Musharraf is deeply concerned about US intentions toward the Taliban, and the Pashtun ethnic group in particular, from whom the Taliban are drawn and who straddle the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and what the future state of Afghanistan will look like. The United States is likely to target the Taliban leadership and its military formations and encourage an anti-Taliban uprising in the Pashtun belt in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is the Taliban heartland.

There is already growing US and international support for the Loya Jirga (tribal council) peace process in Afghanistan, headed by former King Zahir Shah, now in exile in Rome. The LJ process is almost certain to become the main political alternative for Afghanistan and will probably be backed in coming months by the United States and NATO. Pakistan does not support the LJ and would insist to the United States that Islamabad continue to have a major say in the formation of any future government in Kabul. If Pakistan is fully on board with Washington, Islamabad will be able to influence the outcome of the US attack and may retain influence in determining the future Afghan government. If it balks, Washington is unlikely to listen to Pakistani demands.

Musharraf is between a rock and a hard place, and the way he goes could determine the future viability of the Pakistani state. This is a moment of reckoning for Pakistan. It has to decide whether it wants to be part of the international community or go it alone, at the risk of turning into a pariah nation and possibly even state collapse.

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