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The Perils of Pakistan

1.

On October 5, two days before the US started to bomb Afghanistan, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, came to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, to thank General Pervez Musharraf for his “courage and leadership” in committing his country to support George Bush’s war on terrorism. It could not have been easy for Musharraf to do what he did. According to a Gallup poll of Pakistanis in urban areas, 83 percent sympathize with the Taliban rather than the US and 82 percent consider Osama bin Laden a holy warrior not a terrorist, although 64 percent also believe the attack on the US was an act of terrorism. Behind the attacks of September 11, some claim to detect a nefarious Israeli plot, designed to elicit global support for more brutality against the Palestinians.

General Musharraf says he does not share such views; but he cannot admit openly that the Taliban rose to the top of the Afghan heap thanks to Pakistan—and, in particular, thanks to the military organization that Musharraf now heads. According to Ahmed Rashid, the author of the standard work in English on the Taliban, between 1994 and 1998, more than 80,000 Pakistani militants trained and fought with the Taliban—most of them ethnically Pashtuns, like most of the Taliban and some 40 percent of the Afghan population.1 By now agreeing to provide moral and logistical support, intelligence, and Pakistani airspace for allied aircraft—but nothing more—Musharraf has said in effect he was sorry for helping to create the environment in which Osama bin Laden has thrived. This, so far, has been quite enough to stave off America’s wrath.

Pakistan’s self-styled chief executive, who in June added the presidency to his impressive list of military and civilian positions, has made a tricky U-turn. In the view of most of Pakistan’s generals, America is to blame for the mess in Afghanistan. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion, America used the government of General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s last military dictator, as a conduit for some $2 to $3 billion worth of covert aid that was transferred to the Mujahideen, the “holy warriors” then struggling to expel the Soviet invaders from Afghanistan.2 In backing the war against the Soviets, the US benefited from the expansion of religious seminaries inside Pakistan, especially those that inculcated the values of the jihad against the Communists. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in 1989—and, particularly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later—American interest in Afghanistan dried up, leaving Pakistan, in Musharraf’s own words, “high and dry.”

Having cooperated in the struggle against communism, the Pakistanis were left to deal with a neighboring country awash with arms, disputed by despotic warlords, and disfigured by the same religious fanaticism that had served the anti-Communist cause. Naturally, Pakistan wanted a friendly Afghan regime to its west to help counterbalance India, the hostile power that lies to its east. So, in 1994, after their initial protégé, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had been defeated militarily, the Pakistanis turned to the nascent Taliban, whose combination of religious zeal and Pashtun ethnicity suggested that they had a good chance of bringing stability to the country. This the Taliban had succeeded in doing by the end of the 1990s, although pockets of Afghanistan remained in the hands of opposition groups that are members of the Northern Alliance. Pakistan’s defense of the Taliban’s right to diplomatic recognition did not waver even when the Taliban announced that some religious minorities should wear distinguishing symbols and demolished two ancient monumental reliefs of the Buddha. After he seized power from Nawaz Sharif, the now-exiled former prime minister, in 1999, Musharraf continued to plead the Taliban’s case internationally. Pakistan continued to give aid and military advice to the Taliban government and consult with its representatives in Islamabad.

In his long television speech soon after the bombing started, Musharraf justified his decision to side with the US by talking of a choice between “two adversities”—of which he was obliged, as Islamic law prescribes, to choose the lesser. When he told a press conference on October 8 that Pakistan had never armed the Taliban, he simply ignored UN evidence clearly implying that it had.3 What is more, it was the military, and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that steered this policy. An unstable and geographically narrow country, vulnerable to attack on its flanks, Pakistan regarded the Taliban’s Afghanistan not only as an ally—albeit an unruly one—but also as a sort of backyard, where unsightly detritus of Pakistan’s military adventures could be hidden from view. After the Soviet withdrawal, camps and arms depots left over from the resistance movement were incorporated into another war, this time between Pakistan-backed fighters and the Indian army in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where, in 1989, Muslim militants activated a long-dormant campaign for self-determination.

Pakistan could hardly take the political and military risk of participating overtly in an insurgency directed at its powerful neighbor. Instead, it encouraged links between Afghanistan and Kashmir—links that brought together fighters from dozens of Islamist organizations based in Pakistan and Kashmir, of varying sectarian persuasions. All the organizations were involved in the training and indoctrination of the Kashmir Mujahideen, the distribution of arms, and the launching of attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir. Among the fighters have been thousands of guerrillas trained in Afghanistan.

During the US military campaign to capture or kill bin Laden, and to dislodge the Taliban, there have been increasingly violent protests in Pakistan. These demonstrations have been larger and angrier than those that had preceded the attacks—at least eleven people, including five policemen, have so far been killed. The biggest demonstrations took place in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar—cities that have large Pashtun populations, and large numbers of Afghan refugees.

The consensus among most diplomats and foreign observers in Pakistan is that Musharraf has handled a tricky situation deftly. By retaining diplomatic contact with the Taliban, and sending mediators, some of them clerics, to Kabul, he can claim to have done more than anyone else to try to get the Taliban off the Osama bin Laden hook. Middle-class Pakistanis I have talked to refer self-pityingly to Pakistan’s “Talibanization” in recent years, approve of Musharraf’s view that Pakistan’s policies have to change according to circumstances, and approve of his contention that the crisis has given the country a chance to “reemerge as a responsible and dignified nation.” It is possible that the anti-US demonstrations that preceded the US bombing attacks actually helped the general; although few of them were very big, Western journalists obligingly made much of them, lending weight to the impression, already prevailing abroad, of a courageous leader refusing to buckle under pressure.

According to Musharraf, the initial allied assaults used Pakistani airspace and intelligence, although not airfields. Later, US aircraft landed on at least one Pakistani airfield, although the Pakistani authorities say they will not be used for attacks. The general has done Bush other favors as well. On October 4, the foreign ministry announced that evidence that had been provided by the US to Pakistan would be sufficient to secure bin Laden’s conviction in court. This was worth a great deal more to the US than similar assertions from European countries. Musharraf has been more outspoken than most of the other Muslim leaders. The general braved Islamist opinion at home by freezing the bank accounts of four Islamist organizations that, according to the US, have links withal-Qaeda.

In return, the general got some payoffs of his own. At the end of September, Bush lifted the sanctions that had been imposed after Pakistan (following India’s example) detonated nuclear devices in 1998. Congress is now working to lift the sanctions that were imposed after the suspension of democracy during Musharraf’s October 1999 coup. Some debt payments owed to the US were quickly rescheduled. Tony Blair came to shake the hand of a dictator whose country has been suspended from the Commonwealth. The West has put aside its previous concern for Pakistan’s democracy; the Western coalition-builders are convinced that no elected Pakistani prime minister could have supported the US in the way that Musharraf has. It is fortunate for them that he is answerable only to his fellow generals and not to the Pakistani public.

Still, at the beginning of the US-led offensive, the top Pakistani generals seemed more threatening to Musharraf than the protesters on the streets. On October 7, the day the offensive began, Musharraf abruptly fired two important members of the junta that had brought him to power, and who were influential when it came to important decisions: they were Ahmed Mahmoud, the director-general of the ISI, and Muzaffer Usmani, the deputy chief of the army staff. Mahmoud had been particularly tainted by his close association with the newly discarded pro-Afghanistan policy, and by his personal ambition. Talat Masoud, a former lieutenant-general, told me that he expects Abdul Aziz, Mahmoud’s replacement, “to make the ISI subservient to the army”—i.e., to Musharraf’s orders. Usmani, for his part, was a reluctant convert to the new Afghanistan policy, perhaps not a convert at all. He is an ideologically committed Islamist of the kind that Zia favored, and Musharraf, who attended staff college in Britain, does not.

Their replacements, and the other men whom Musharraf subsequently promoted in his reshuffle, may not all be as critical of the Taliban as Musharraf has become. The important thing, however, is that they owe their positions to Musharraf, and they will be beholden to him, not the other way around. The News, a pro-Musharraf English-language daily, said the new men held “moderate views and life-styles”—euphemistic talk for their having wives with uncovered heads, and for favoring a glass of whisky, not milk, after dinner.

For all that, the timing of the reshuffle suggested a case of the jitters on Musharraf’s part. It was almost coincidental with a US offensive that seemed certain to unsettle Pakistanis, not to mention the country’s more than two million Afghan refugees. Musharraf may have felt that, in the event of a breakdown in law and order, and an intensification of pressure from the religious right, Mahmoud and Usmani might turn against him. Talat Masoud expects the purge to continue, especially in the ISI. But maintaining law and order now depends as much on what happens in Afghanistan as it does on the resolve of Pakistan’s armed forces and police.

Contrary to some early predictions, Musharraf now has a very good chance of surviving; the US, certainly, will do all it can to ensure that he does. The questions now are whether a new Afghan regime will emerge and what form it might take. Back in the 1980s, General Zia ul-Haq, in encouraging the Taliban, hitched Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy to his own policy of domestic Islamization. His successors, and their ISI chiefs, hitched these to a third policy, aggressive action in Kashmir; when they were combined, these policies defined what Pakistan stood for in the 1990s. It is impossible to uncouple one from the other two; now that Afghanistan policy has changed, the others will have to change, too. The future actions of Musharraf, and the US, will determine whether this change further weakens Pakistan or invigorates it.

  1. 1

    Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).

  2. 2

    See the special report put out by Human Rights Watch, on foreign interference in Afghanistan, “Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia and Iran in Fueling the Civil War,” Vol. 13, No. 3 (July 2001). This details not only Pakistani interference in Afghanistan, but also US, Iranian, Russian, and Central Asian meddling.

  3. 3

    A UN secretary-general’s report of 1997 cites “reliable eyewitnesses” who described the delivery of arms to the Taliban that, it is generally understood, came from Pakistan; see “The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Report of the Secretary-General, S/ 1997/894 (November 14, 1997), para. 18. See also Rashid, Taliban, and Human Rights Watch, “Crisis of Impunity”; both sources discuss Pakistani military aid to the Taliban.

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