Diplomatic efforts centre on Pakistan
South Asian country in a vise between U.S. demands for help and Afghan threats
By GEOFFREY YORK, The Globe and Mail
Monday, September 17, 2001
ISLAMABAD -- A team of Pakistan officials is due to arrive in Afghanistan today in a last-ditch effort to persuade the hard-line Taliban regime to surrender the world's top terrorism suspect, Osama bin Laden, who is accused of plotting last week's catastrophic attacks.
Some reports suggested that the Taliban will face an ultimatum to surrender the Saudi multimillionaire fugitive within three days or face a massive U.S.-led military assault.
The delegation, probably led by Pakistani intelligence officials, will travel today to the Afghan city of Kandahar, the headquarters of the militant Taliban movement. And in separate signs of looming action, the United States is planning to send a high-level delegation to Pakistan to discuss a military operation, while Pakistan's leaders are holding meetings with officials of their closest allies, China and Saudi Arabia.
Military action seems nearly certain, since few observers are expecting any success from the Pakistani mission to Afghanistan. Over the weekend, the Taliban remained as defiantly hostile as ever. Instead of offering concessions, it was fortifying bunkers and vowing to ignite the flames of a much wider regional war if the United States goes ahead with military action.
In an audacious threat to its Muslim neighbours, the Taliban warned that it could order its warriors to launch cross-border attacks on any neighbour assisting the United States in an assault on Afghanistan.
"It would spark off extraordinary danger," said the Taliban's leader, the reclusive, one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar, in a statement read to reporters in Islamabad by the Taliban ambassador on Saturday.
"If any neighbouring country gave territorial routes or airspace to the United States against our land, it would draw us into an imposed war," the statement said. "It is not impossible that we would attack such country under compulsion and the mujahedeen [holy warriors] would have to enter the territory of such country."
The ambassador, Abdul Salam Zaeef, gave no hint of any softening of the Taliban position. He staunchly defended Mr. bin Laden, accusing the United States of unfairly blaming him for last week's attacks. And while he repeated the Taliban's offer to allow a Muslim court to consider what Washington knows about the Saudi-born fugitive's role, he made it clear that the regime has already rejected some of the most crucial evidence.
For example, he flatly rejected U.S. officials' claim that suspected terrorists contacted Mr. bin Laden's associates after the New York and Washington attacks to report on the success of the terrorist operation.
"No one has contacted Osama," the Taliban ambassador said. "This is a total lie. It is a fabrication."
The world's Muslim countries will have a religious obligation to defend Afghanistan if it is attacked, he said.
"If there is any attack on an Islamic country, they have a religious obligation to defend that country."
And in a deliberate effort to exploit the greatest fears of Pakistan and the United States, he predicted that a U.S.-led military attack would provoke "grave consequences and instability" for this entire volatile region, sometimes dubbed the most dangerous in the world, a region where both Pakistan and India have recently acquired nuclear weapons.
Pakistan has been the Taliban's closest friend and ally since the birth of the radical Islamic movement in 1994. But the United States is now hoping to sever that connection, isolating the Taliban by forcing Pakistan to make a dramatic shift in its foreign policy. Under this intense U.S. pressure, Pakistan is trying to avoid a full-scale war by persuading the Taliban to surrender Mr. bin Laden, who has enjoyed a safe haven in Afghanistan since 1996.
"The Pakistan government is leaning on the Taliban government to hand over Osama to save this entire region from catastrophe," newspaper editor Najam Sethi told Reuters News Agency after a meeting yesterday with Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervaiz Musharraf.
General Musharraf, nervously watching the potential public backlash to his co-operation with the expected U.S. military strikes, began a series of meetings with key opinion-makers yesterday to lobby for their support. He met religious leaders, politicians and journalists, among others.
Hard-line Islamic political parties and religious groups have been threatening a massive wave of street protests against Gen. Musharraf if he provides assistance to attacks against Afghanistan.
Some street protests have already begun -- so far, relatively small and peaceful. But the hard-line groups have a reputation for sparking violent actions by their followers.
To try to minimize the backlash, Gen. Musharraf has publicly given few details on Pakistan's agreement to co-operate with U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan.
An unnamed source told Reuters yesterday that the President quietly told newspaper editors that Pakistan might give the United States logistical support and even allow U.S. ships to dock along its coast in any attack on Afghanistan. But his Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, repeatedly refused at a weekend press conference to tell reporters whether Pakistan would allow the Pentagon to use its airspace and military bases.