Moderates prepare for militants' wrath
Some Pakistanis expecting a backlash have begun heading for the hills, MIRO CERNETIG writes
By MIRO CERNETIG, The Globe and Mail
With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa
Wednesday, September 19, 2001
ISLAMABAD -- Last night at six o'clock on the dot, a computer engineer finished his shift and hurried home to pack his bags and do what many here are planning to do: head for the foothills of the Himalayas, before the rain of U.S. cruise missiles that they expect falls on neighbouring Afghanistan.
Such an attack probably wouldn't threaten Islamabad, about 200 kilometres west of the Afghan border. But if the missiles come, along with U.S. ground troops, they will surely ignite a white rage amongst Islamabad's Islamic militants, the supporters of Afghanistan's Taliban government.
Young moderates say recrimination, riots and acts of terrorism could follow against them, such as Zubail Zubir, the engineer, who cut their hair short and embrace a Western lifestyle that the Taliban and its followers abhor.
"Our whole family will be going to a small village. My father thinks we will be safe there. We'll stay in the countryside for a month," he said.
"But don't worry, sirs," he added, when he saw two foreigners exchange uneasy looks. "Our generals, our army, they are very, very strong."
As the clock ticks down on the U.S. demand for the Taliban to hand over alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," Pakistan's leafy capital still seemed sleepy yesterday. In the sticky heat of late summer, men sat under the trees, eating almonds and reading newspapers. Stores were nearly empty, as were the capital's wide boulevards.
Still, as the Kalashnikov-toting guards outside the hotels and shops attest, this is a country known for political volatility. Political mobs against the West can become violent, and extremists are often well armed.
In 1998, when the United States fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan to try to destroy Mr. bin Laden's terrorist camps, anti-American feeling reached deadly levels. Rockets were fired at the U.S. Information Services offices. In 1997, four employees of an American oil company and their driver were killed in broad daylight.
The U.S. embassy in Islamabad says its nonessential staff members and their families are being allowed to leave the country.
"This is a dangerous time," said a U.S. diplomat who was buying a ticket out of Islamabad yesterday. "Anyone who doesn't need to be here should leave."
The Canadian High Commission in Islamabad remains open, although security has been bolstered. Ottawa is advising Canadians not to travel to Pakistan because of "increased dangers" resulting from the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Anyone who elects to stay should avoid the areas bordering Afghanistan, the Department of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.
Moderate Muslims, who support the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, believe that if Washington launches an attack, Pakistan's militant Islamics will protest against the Islamabad government.
A salesman at a telephone service store in Islamabad, who asked not to be named, said he also fears reprisals against those who lead more secular lives and support the current order.
"It's a nightmare," he said, nervously spinning his teacup on his desk. "Some of the militants have already come to the market in my neighbourhood, yelling that it is people like me who allow Pakistan's government to help the Americans attack Afghanistan. It is frightening. Many people will leave Islamabad, if they can. It will be best to get as far away as possible from the Afghan border. It will be a war there if our government helps America kill Afghans."
He was referring to the Taliban's deep support around the region of the Khyber Pass, where the Pushtun tribes largely support Afghanistan's rigid Islamic regime. In Pakistan's so-called Wild East, men take pride in carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and have an ambivalent view of Pakistan's current leadership. Their rugged land has an age-old tradition as a base for guerrilla warfare.
"I am afraid that maybe they will bring bombs to Islamabad," said Farook, a taxi driver who has been ferrying journalists to the Khyber Pass as they try to catch a glimpse of the wave of Afghan refugees trying to cross Pakistan's sealed border. "It's a bad time. I hope America does not start World War Three."