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 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.


The Dar ul-Uloom, or House of Learning, in the Pakistani village of Panjpir, in the Sawabi district of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is an important place on the local political and social map. The school not only dominates the economic and social life of Panjpir, but also of the surrounding area, where seminarians preach in dozens of small mosques. Koran courses held during the fasting month of Ramadan attract up to nine thousand men and more than half that many women; the visitors stay in local mosques, or in private houses near the school. Maulana Muhammad Tayyab, the seminary’s spiritual leader, has followers on both sides of the Afghan border, most of them Pashtuns. Thousands of them are affiliated with the other seminaries that are run in his name. Most of the seminarians, even those who are not Pashtun, admire the Taliban.

Tayyab’s own political colors are more elusive. When Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, cabinet ministers from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) were regular visitors to Panjpir. One current seminarian is the son of Sufi Mohammad, a tribal leader who has waged a lengthy struggle, intermittently violent, for Taliban-style government in Malakand, an unruly frontier region. But the Maulana is also in close touch with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pakistan’s former Afghan protégé, who is a Dar ul-Uloom alumnus. Before the US started its offensive against Afghanistan, Hekmatyar, who now lives in Iran, said he would support the Taliban. Tayyab said that his students would wage jihad on behalf of “whoever has been oppressed.”

There are more than four thousand registered seminary schools in Pakistan, with hundreds of thousands of students; many more seminaries are unregistered. Most such schools survive on voluntary contributions, rarely charging fees, and are exempted from paying tax. Few have ever been visited by a government inspector inquiring about the curriculum. They range in size from the eight-thousand-student Jamiat ul-Uloomi Islamiyyah, on the outskirts of Karachi, to countless huts in villages across the country, where often poorly educated teachers give rudimentary instruction in the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet, and nothing else, to a handful of small boys. A lot of seminarians come from very poor families that can’t afford the school uniform and writing paper needed for their children to attend a state-sponsored school. Not all seminarians emerge as religious fanatics; thousands of young Pakistanis attend seminary classes for a few hours each week, after classes at their regular school are over. Some seminaries educate well-versed imams for the mosques. Many more, however, are organized to produce recruits for jihad.

In fact, the importance of Maulana Fazl ul-Rehman, and Pakistan’s other cleric-politicians, derives not from elections but from their power over education. Ul-Rehman’s branch of the divided Jamiat-Ulema-Islam party (JUI)—the Islamic Ulema Party—is rich and influential beyond the two parliamentary seats (out of 204) that it won in the last general election, in 1997. Ul-Rehman controls hundreds of seminaries around the country, many of them funded with Saudi money. These places, like British public schools, have an impressive old-boy network. It is an open secret that, through this network, the JUI has cultivated good relations, if not working links, with the Taliban, and also with jihadi and other religious organizations that are active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir. A few days before he was put under house arrest at the beginning of the US offensive, ul-Rehman boasted of the “constant contact” he had with Taliban leaders; he was more circumspect when it came to discussing rumored organizational links between the JUI and groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba (the Army of the Friends of the Prophet), a militant organization suspected of murdering Shiites in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Harakat ul-Mujahideen—or the Movement of Mujahideen, a jihadi organization on America’s list of terrorist groups, which has sent Mujahideen as far afield as Kashmir and Bosnia. India suspects the Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Army of Mohammad, an offshoot of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, of carrying out the October 1 suicide attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature, in which at least thirty-eight people were killed. As a consequence of that attack, the US is investigating the Jaish-e-Mohammad—which has hastily changed its name, to Tehrik ul-Forqan, the Movement of Those Who Can Distinguish Between Good and Evil—and may add it to its list of terrorist organizations.

Watching the Islamist protests that have followed the US strikes, a visitor might conclude that the JUI’s two main branches, along with the Jamaat Islami (JI), or the Party of Islam, Pakistan’s other big Islamist party, are doing all they can to bring down the government. It seemed at first that their demonstrations were intended to embolden Islamists in the army and that a putsch might follow. But the opposition mounted by ul-Rehman and the others is self-limiting. A drive along the road toward Pishin, about twenty-five miles north of Quetta, where the JUI’s black-and-white standard flies from mosques, seminaries, and shops, illustrates how visible the JUI’s followers have become, and how much a government crackdown would hurt the party. Many of the JUI’s rich benefactors, furthermore, rely on the complicity of the authorities to conduct a vast smuggling operation, much of it in electrical appliances made in China and the Far East and sent via the Gulf States and Iran to Afghanistan and then into Pakistan. Ul-Rehman himself is as much a deal-maker as an ideologue. In 1993, he found ways to justify his joining, as a junior coalition partner, the second government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, who could be described as a Westernized neo-secularist. Bhutto—who now lives in self-imposed exile in London—even appointed ul-Rehman chairman of the national assembly’s standing committee for foreign affairs. Until the 1999 coup, the JUI was a coalition partner in the government based in Quetta that ran the province of Baluchistan, whose population is around 50 percent Pashtun.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that, a few days before his arrest, when his criticisms of the government’s “hypocritical” policy of cooperation with the US reached their peak, ul-Rehman still spoke with caution. He carefully drew a distinction between a jihad against the US in Afghanistan—which the Musharraf government could merely deplore—and a jihad launched against the Pakistani government; that, the general has made clear, would provoke a tough reaction. Ul-Rehman made it clear that he understood this. “Unless the government itself takes action against the Taliban,” ul-Rehman said, “the jihad will not take place inside Pakistan.” A few days after the US bombing began, most of the country’s Islamist parties and groups had declared jihad against the US, not against Musharraf, and some would-be Mujahideen were crossing the border to join the Taliban. Ul-Rehman’s prestige, because he had defended the Taliban more stoutly than anyone else and been placed under house arrest, has risen considerably.

I met some of Ul-Rehman’s followers in an impoverished suburb of Quetta called Qila Abdullah. Here posters exhort passers-by to join al-Badr, a jihadi group. Among the mud- brick houses, you come upon a half-built seminary inhabited by a dozen students whom locals identify as members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba. Across a dried stream bed, a mixed population of Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns live in great poverty—but probably more comfortably than their kinsmen across the border, thirty-eight miles away. In the streets, there is not a woman to be seen. Most boys attend seminaries—their fathers work in the bazaar. Among people here, I learned during discussions with local residents, faith in the intervention of the divine in all things is strong: the belief that the martyred Mujahideen have achieved heavenly repose exercises a powerful hold over the imaginations of young people. Some other residents I talked to say they regard themselves as Muslims first, Pashtun second, and Pakistani or Afghan last. Religious politicians like ul-Rehman have great opportunities to exploit popular sentiment here.


Even on October 12, when rumors were circulating that US combat troops had arrived at Pakistani airports, anti-government protests held after Friday prayers were not particularly impressive except in Karachi, where some 20,000 people gathered, and there was some violence. In some places, especially near the Afghan border, religious leaders had gone into hiding, fearing arrest. Security was very tight. Whatever their fury at the US and their sympathy for the Taliban’s spirit of defiance, many Pakistanis declined to associate themselves with a protest movement that had been orchestrated by religious parties they do not support. Neither the PML nor the PPP—which the regime allows to exist, but forbids them to hold meetings or participate in elections—came out in support of the protests. Furthermore, many Pakistanis, understanding the pressures and payoffs that led Musharraf to support the US coalition, continued to accept that decision.

The longer the conflict in Afghanistan goes on, and the greater the number of civilian casualties, the more such views favorable to Musharraf will be challenged. Musharraf has tried to reassure the Pakistanis that if there is to be a new government in Afghanistan, it will not be dominated by the component parts of the Northern Alliance, which Pakistanis regard as hostile. They have no affinities with ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks or with the Iran-backed Hazaras. When Musharraf said he was open to proposals that Zahir Shah return to lead his nation, this was another U-turn; Pakistanis remember Afghanistan’s deposed king for his attempts to keep Pakistan out of the UN. Musharraf is willing to be flexible about him because he is Pashtun at least, and he is not likely to exercise much power in any case. And many Pakistanis, although they have turned against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, regard the Pashtuns as their natural allies in Afghanistan. If the king does not return, Musharraf will try to find another Pashtun to support.

Much could go wrong. What if, for example, the Northern Alliance, helped by the US, manages to take over Taliban-controlled regions and starts butchering Pashtun civilians? What if Musharraf’s often expressed concerns that a future government include Pashtuns friendly to Pakistan are disregarded? At best, Pakistanis will regard Musharraf as a dupe, at worst, an accessory to murder. They will despise themselves for placing their trust, once again, in the treacherous US. If Musharraf falls because a new Afghanistan government seems unsatisfactory to Pakistanis, the military leader who replaces him will find it hard to resist the temptation to undermine Afghanistan’s new government. Disgruntled ISI officers will line up to help him, and Pakistan’s future will become more uncertain than ever.

Apart from Afghanistan, Pakistan has more to lose from the current American strategy than any other country. Nonetheless, several well-placed observers I talked to think the crisis will force Musharraf to try to reform his nation. The perverse rationale that sustained Pakistan’s former Afghanistan policy cast a shadow over Pakistan’s entire political life; it gave Pakistan’s own jihadi groups, and their backers, much more power than their relatively small public support entitled them to. Since these groups were supposedly furthering Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir, they were permitted great liberties on Pakistani soil. In 1994, after the Pakistan–Taliban alliance was formed, the army, the ISI, and important parts of civilian governments competed with one another for the favor of, and control over, the religious parties and their jihadi affiliates. To criticize this policy openly was to criticize Pakistan’s support for the Pashtun people, as well as the sacred obligation of jihad in Kashmir. This three-way policy involving Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the jihadi did Pakistan great harm. It radicalized millions of Pakistanis, and gave the country the image of a supporter of brutality and murder.

Afghanistan made this policy possible. It served as a physical refuge for the Kashmiri jihadi groups, and a moral refuge for Pakistan’s rulers, in that it allowed them to disclaim responsibility for the jihadi groups they covertly supported. That refuge will probably disappear. If there is a new Afghan government, especially one that is watched over by the UN, it is unlikely to allow jihadi groups with Pakistani members to maintain camps and supply depots on Afghan soil. Having declared a war on all terrorism, the US will find it hard to maintain its equivocal position toward Pakistan’s unofficial support for jihadi groups in Kashmir. Musharraf has already shown he appreciates this—he took the unusual step of publicly regretting the October 1 attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature.

Whatever immediate satisfaction they have taken from bin Laden’s moment of success, most Pakistanis believe, in common with their co-religionists elsewhere, that there is a difference between jihad, exemplified by the freedom struggles being waged in Kashmir and Palestine, and the kind of terrorist actions that destroy skyscrapers. The Indian government says that as far as Kashmir is concerned, there is no difference. This is a stale position; but only a serious diplomatic effort to bring about peace in Kash-mir, an effort conducted amid a de-escalation of violence, could supersede India’s argument, and open the way for a serious discussion of the Kashmir issue. This, in turn, cannot happen unless the US itself is willing to bring strong pressure on the Indians and the Pakistanis—as it also should on the Israelis and Palestinians. Most Pakistanis would welcome such a process. Musharraf would be a credible negotiator; it was he who ordered a dramatic incursion of Pakistani troops into an Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir in 1999. Signs of progress would marginalize jihadi groups, giving Musharraf the opportunity quietly to sever the establishment’s support for them.

For Pakistan to become a “responsible and dignified nation,” in Musharraf’s words, the US and the rest of the industrialized world need to be far more deeply engaged in its problems than they have been in the past. Without a big aid package, Pakistan will be unable to develop the kind of economy in which Pakistan’s young people can find work instead of turning to the proselytizing politicians of the JUI and JI. Without strong economic support, Pakistan will be unable to set up the public education system it needs if the stranglehold of the religious seminaries is to be broken, and Musharraf will continue, as he did in the first two years of rule, to vacillate before the threats of charismatic mullahs.

Before September 11 Musharraf’s largest problem was that he was a dictator. Now it is his biggest asset. He intends to strengthen the president’s powers before letting Pakistanis elect a new prime minister, next October. The US will not object. Thanks in no small measure to a history of political interference by Pakistan’s armed forces, Pakistan’s very weak and flawed façade of a democratic system cannot assume the tasks that September 11 has thrust upon it, particularly the task of controlling the violent religious groups fighting in Kashmir. Musharraf, if the US strongly backs him—and, at the same time, does not undermine him by killing civilians in Afghanistan—at least has a chance to carry out some of the reforms Pakistan desperately needs.

—Karachi, October 17, 2001

This Issue

November 15, 2001