Islamic radicals could overpower Pakistani regime
From a heartland of extremism, GEOFFREY YORK
reports on the West's ultimate nightmare
Friday, September 14, 2001
AKORA KHATTAK, PAKISTAN -- It may be the ultimate nightmare: anti-Western Islamic radicals seizing power in a large nuclear-armed state. But that is one of the factors taken into account by the United States as it plans its response to this week's catastrophic terrorist attacks.
Massive military strikes on terrorist suspects in Afghanistan could trigger a revolt by the thousands of Islamic extremists who wield considerable influence in Pakistan.
That, in turn, would destabilize Pakistan's military regime, possibly allowing its nuclear arsenal to fall into the hands of the religious radicals who helped train and inspire the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan.
When both Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, this region became, in the words of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, "the most dangerous place on Earth."
Some of Pakistan's most fiery Islamic leaders are already issuing threats of a domestic uprising if there is any U.S. military action.
"The first reaction will be against the Pakistan government," said Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, leader of a pro-Taliban political faction and head of an influential Islamic school in Pakistan where many Taliban leaders were trained.
"The United States couldn't attack Afghanistan without crossing Pakistan air space. If that happens, the people of Pakistan will rise up against the government."
Similar threats are emerging from rank-and-file Muslims in this heartland of religious extremism near the Afghanistan border, recalling the furious backlash in 1998 after U.S. cruise-missile attacks on suspected Afghan terrorist camps.
"The more pressure you put on us, the more dangerous we are," said Mohammed Qasim, an Afghan refugee who has lived in Pakistan for 15 years. "We are like a plate of glass. If you put pressure on us, we break into sharp, jagged, dangerous pieces."
Pakistan will play a crucial role in this crisis. U.S. officials have begun an intense lobbying campaign to secure a range of measures from Pakistan to support the antiterrorism effort. The country's co-operation will be vital to any military strikes against Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire accused of training terrorists at secret camps in Afghanistan.
Yet Pakistan is caught between Western pressure and the influence of its own anti-Western religious extremists, who have close links to the Taliban regime in Kabul and key factions in the Pakistani military itself.
Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has always resisted the idea of U.S. military attacks on Afghan targets. When the Pentagon was pondering a retaliatory strike last year after 17 U.S. sailors were killed in a bombing attack on a naval ship, Pakistan staunchly criticized the military option. Washington wavered, and ultimately decided not to launch a military strike, a decision it may be regretting today.
Gen. Musharraf again showed his ambivalence yesterday. While he repeatedly condemned the attacks in New York and Washington and promised "unstinted co-operation" with the U.S. antiterrorism effort, he continued to argue for a peaceful approach to the Taliban leaders.
"Pakistan has always said that the best way to deal with the Afghans is to continue to engage with them," his spokesman told journalists.
Islamic fundamentalist groups have seldom enjoyed wide appeal in Pakistan, despite a succession of corrupt civilian and military governments. When the rare free election has been held, the main pro-Islamic party, Jamaat-i-Islami, has struggled to scrape together a few percentage points of the votes.
But the fundamentalist movement does have street power, with legions of angry students who can shut down the country's big cities on short notice. More worrisome to Western analysts has been the rise of strongly religious men in the officer ranks of the armed forces.
Pakistan's military has always claimed to be secular, but there may now be enough Islamicists at the officer level to stage their own coup.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell pointedly reminded the Pakistani regime that Washington expects its "fullest co-operation." Other senior U.S. officials have been meeting their Pakistani counterparts to reinforce the message.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world that recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It is widely reported to be funnelling secret military aid to the Taliban, including aircraft, high-tech weaponry and military advisers.
Pakistan could also be a crucial staging ground for U.S. attacks on Afghan targets. There are reports that elite U.S. soldiers have long been present in the northwestern city of Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border, where they could be ready for a quick strike action.
The Pakistani media is filled with worried speculation that the country will suffer greatly if it fails to cut its links to the Taliban, especially after U.S. President George Bush announced that he will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed the attacks and those who "harbour" the terrorists.
"There is fear and panic in people here as many think that America will strike Pakistan along with Afghanistan," the daily Pakistan Observer wrote yesterday.
Another newspaper, The News, said the Taliban has begun hiding its top leaders and repositioning its artillery defences to prepare for a "major U.S. military onslaught."
It said Pakistan is facing a "security nightmare" that could include a flood of Afghan refugees and a sharp rise in Islamic fundamentalism if the United States launches military strikes.
"Pakistani security officials recognize that U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan may result in an outpouring of support for religious seminaries all across Pakistan," the newspaper said.