U.S. is 'the lesser evil,' Pakistani leader says
By MIRO CERNETIG AND GEOFFREY YORK, The Globe and Mail
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press
Thursday, September 20, 2001
ISLAMABAD and PESHAWAR -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf went on national television last night to defend his support for U.S. military action against Afghanistan, asking for his country's trust and warning of the most serious crisis since its 1971-72 war with India over Bangladesh.
General Musharraf told his country that he has made the best decision by allowing U.S. warplanes to fly over his country and providing logistical support for Washington's hunt for suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
"If you are facing two problems, it is better to take the lesser evil," he said.
"My countrymen, have trust in me," he added, wearing a military uniform festooned with medals. "The great majority of people are supporting my position."
In giving the United States information, a direct air route to Afghanistan and possibly logistical help, Gen. Musharraf is giving Washington a major strategic advantage, and clearly hoping for a quid pro quo.
"We can emerge as a powerful nation and our problems can be solved," he said, warning that a wrong decision by the nation at this extraordinary moment would "put into danger our very existence."
But Gen. Musharraf is going head to head with Pakistan's own Islamic militants, who have already declared their support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.
Hours before the President's speech, there were street protests in the northwestern cities of Peshawar and Mingora. And one of Pakistan's most militant Islamic politicians raised the threat of political instability, calling for a national strike tomorrow.
"We have decided to launch a resistance movement throughout the country," Maulana Sami-ul-Haq said. "There is no legal or moral justification for an assault on Afghanistan. We will call it terrorism."
The Islamic leader, who has helped train the young men who become the Taliban's holy warriors, said the protest will involve millions of Pakistanis and shut down much of the country, yet be peaceful.
But he added that if Afghanistan's Islamic scholars call for military jihad against the United States and its allies, he and other militants will follow.
(Since the ninth century, the Islamic doctrine of armed jihad, as opposed to personal, spiritual jihad -- the struggle against one's own wrongdoing -- has been linked to the state.)
In Kabul, those scholars broke up without making that declaration or deciding whether to hand over Mr. bin Laden. They are to resume work today.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar said his officials are willing to meet with the United States, but accused Washington of unfairly vilifying Mr. bin Laden, who has been given shelter in Afghanistan since 1996 as a "guest" of the regime.
In a speech read to the gathering in the war-shattered presidential palace, Mr. Omar called the U.S. response to last week's terrorist attacks an effort to harm the Taliban, according to the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based Afghan news agency with close ties to Kabul.
"We have told America that we have taken all resources from Osama and he cannot contact the outside world. And we have told America that neither the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan or Osama are involved in the American events. But it is sad that America does not listen to our word."
He also said that members of the Taliban "have had . . . talks with the present and past U.S. governments and we are ready for more talks."
But a White House spokesman rejected the offer.
Afghan officials have already met with a two-man delegation from Islamabad. Pakistan is one of just three countries that recognize the Taliban government as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers (the others are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). But it has had to abruptly reconsider its policies as a result of last week's attacks and the resulting U.S. pressure for military co-operation.
In his speech last night, Gen. Musharraf said Pakistan's response to the crisis will determine whether it faces ruination or a fruitful future.
To stand against Washington and its allies, he suggested, would provide an opportunity for archenemy India to participate in an international campaign against Pakistan, a powerful argument in a country where anti-Indian sentiments run deep.
"I would like to tell India: 'Lay off,' " he said, switching from Urdu to English.
But he promised that support for the United States will bring economic rewards and increased international standing; even possibly a solution to the Kashmir dispute with India.
Although he did not outline those windfalls, his government clearly hopes its support for the U.S. response will persuade Washington and the West to forgive or reschedule a major part of Pakistan's $37-billion (U.S.) foreign debt and lift economic sanctions imposed after Pakistan's conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998.
"We have to save our nation from damage. We have to build our national respect," he said last night. "Pakistan comes first, everything else comes later."
In other Islamic countries, he said, "I know, opinions are divided. But the majority, the great majority, are supporting the course I have taken."
The President, a moderate Muslim despite his government's recognition of the Taliban, urged Pakistanis to ignore the Islamic extremists who want to shut down Pakistan's economy and create instability.
"Some clerics and religious leaders are being drawn to an emotional decision," he said. "They want to create conditions where the country comes to a halt."
On the streets of Islamabad, some reacted positively.
"I liked our President's speech," said a city worker who watched the broadcast on the television at a food stall. "He is a smart man. Pakistan has no choice to follow his advice if we wish a future."
Mr. Bush also welcomed the speech.
"There is no question that President Musharraf has taken a bold position," he told reporters in the Oval Office.
With war looming, though, Pakistan is courting a humanitarian disaster.
With relief supplies running out, millions of Afghans are facing shortages that could lead to mass starvation, and as many as a million people have already fled their homes for fear of military strikes, aid workers say.
Pakistan has sealed its borders and has prohibited aid workers from reaching the main border crossing in the Khyber Pass, making it difficult to assess the situation, according to a report yesterday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
About 15,000 refugees have managed to cross the border near the Pakistani city of Quetta, including 5,000 who are now encamped just inside the border as they wait for shelter, according to the UNHCR.
But many more continue to risk their lives to cross dangerous mountain passes in the middle of the night, running the gauntlet of gunfire from Pakistani border guards. In one incident, desperate refugees threw stones at those border guards, a Pakistani newspaper reported yesterday.