The Perils of Pakistan

Pervez Musharraf
Pervez Musharraf; drawing by David Levine


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…

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