Pakistan risks revolt if it helps U.S. strike
By GEOFFREY YORK, The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 15, 2001
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's military regime is moving reluctantly toward a decision to provide crucial assistance for U.S. military strikes on terrorist suspects, but it faces the prospect of a mass backlash from its own people.
While the regime was officially asking for more time to consider the demand for military co-operation, it seemed last night that it has grudgingly bowed to the arm-twisting tactics. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was "encouraged" by signs that Pakistan was responding seriously to the request.
Pakistani President Pervaiz Musharraf is under intense pressure to to let U.S. military use Pakistani airspace and ground territory for its expected attacks on Osama bin Laden and other suspected terrorists sheltered by the Taliban movement in neighbouring Afghanistan. He met with his military commanders for seven hours yesterday, but made no announcement.
Islamic militants are threatening a holy war, and fears are mounting of street riots and violence in this fragile nuclear-armed state if a U.S. military counterstrike proceeds. "If it allows the U.S. to use Pakistani space and ground, the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan will unleash a civil war in Pakistan," the respected daily The News warned in a front-page article yesterday.
Any decision to co-operate with a U.S. military assault "would be sparking off an instant anger of the right-wing forces, even the moderate ones, besides earning the wrath of the masses, which consider Osama a soldier of Islam," another commentator said in the same newspaper. "The internal reaction might become a little hard to counter."
Mr. Musharraf is in dire need of U.S. financial and military aid for his impoverished and indebted country, and he now seems ready to co-operate with American demands. But many of the country's most influential forces, including powerful Islamic organizations and high-ranking members of the military and political establishment, are deeply unhappy with the pressure tactics.
Fearing a conflagration on the streets, several large multinational corporations are asking their staff to leave Pakistan as soon as possible. Hundreds of Pakistani soldiers were deployed to protect airports, key streets, and foreign consulates and embassies in Islamabad and Karachi. Some Western airlines have suspended flights to the country, and the Pakistani military closed Islamabad's international airport early yesterday morning for what was described as "some very intense movement of military hardware."
The Canadian government has warned Canadians not to travel to Pakistan "unless there are compelling reasons to do so." It said the terrorism crisis has "raised the possibility of increased dangers for Canadians in Pakistan."
The government also confirmed that security has been bolstered at the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad.
Anxieties about a larger war in Afghanistan were fuelled further yesterday with another round of reports, not confirmed, that anti-Taliban military leader Ahmed Shah Masood died of wounds inflicted by a bomb attack last week. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press also said Taliban forces in Afghanistan's far north were making large gains against Mr. Masood's forces.
In Kabul, Taliban leaders vowed revenge if the United States attacked the country, but many ordinary Afghans were fleeing to safer homes in the countryside.
Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan seems on the verge of cutting back its traditionally close links to the Taliban, the purist Islamic group that controls 95 per cent of Afghanistan. For the past five years, the Taliban has provided a safe haven for Mr. bin Laden, who is alleged to be running a dozen terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. He is now the main suspect in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It is clear that Pakistan's military rulers see a shift as a prudent and pragmatic response to the possible threat of American sanctions, which could cost it dearly if it fails to co-operate.
But in the Pakistan media, there was virtually unanimous agreement that the American pressure was unfair. Most remain sympathetic to the Taliban, and some even speculated that Washington is blaming Muslims for the terrorist actions of other forces.
The daily Pakistan Observer argued that the crisis was being exploited to weaken Pakistan. "Reports emanating from New York very strongly suggest that strong Jew and Indian lobbies have become extremely active in advising President Bush's security aides to avail the historic moment to target Pakistan's nuclear installations," it said.
Other local reports suggested, without any apparent evidence, that Japanese terrorists or even Israeli intelligence services could have been responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. And there was a consensus that the Taliban will not be intimidated or defeated by American military strikes.
"A mad retaliation against Afghanistan can cause a reaction that can be greater than its achievement," an article in The News predicted. "After all, a people cannot be subdued by sheer power."
A writer in the Friday Times, a weekly, said the Taliban will "never surrender" to any American pressure.