As the country believed to be harboring the lead suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Afghanistan looks increasingly likely to be the target of retaliatory strikes. Pakistan -- which has close ties to neighboring Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia -- is promising to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. What help does the U.S. want from Islamabad? And what kind of dilemma does this pose for Pakistan?
Prague, 14 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In August 1998, bombs ripped through the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and setting in motion reprisals that would reverberate far from the targets in Africa.
The U.S. -- believing Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden to be behind the bombings -- fired cruise missiles across Pakistani territory at six targets in Afghanistan thought to be bin Laden's training camps.
In Pakistan, resentment boiled over, with demonstrators taking to the streets to denounce the United States.
The U.S. now appears to be gearing up to strike against the terrorist network it believes was behind the 11 September devastating attacks on New York and Washington, with Afghanistan again emerging as a likely target. Pakistan's role is seen as key, since it is the main backer of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which has been sheltering bin Laden.
Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, is pledging to cooperate with the U.S. in its efforts to combat terrorism. The Pakistani cabinet and National Security Council are due to meet on 15 September to discuss recommendations made by the country's top military commanders regarding Islamabad's specific response to the U.S. appeal for help.
What kind of assistance is the U.S. looking for?
Terence Taylor is an Asia expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. He says the U.S. will be seeking intelligence support and, if necessary, fly-over rights to Pakistani airspace for missiles, combat aircraft and, possibly, special forces:
"There's a much longer-term and difficult aspect, [in which] the U.S. would be seeking support, and that would be, in Pakistan, cutting off its support -- not necessarily political, but technical and economic -- to the Taliban, not much of it directed by the government but by individuals within Pakistan. They largely support the Afghan telecommunications network. It wouldn't work without Pakistani support. There are a number of areas like that where they would seek support to isolate the Taliban."
He says that this is assuming the Taliban doesn't itself cooperate with any U.S. requests. But here, too, the U.S. may want Pakistan to wield its clout by acting as a conduit for messages to the Taliban.
Some experts say the U.S. is likely to want Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, and in return, could ease sanctions imposed on Pakistan after its nuclear tests in 1998. Taylor says he doesn't expect negotiations to be tit-for-tat, however.
Cooperation with the United States is not without its risks, according to Gerd Nonneman, a Mideast specialist at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in Lancaster, England. As he told RFE/RL:
"The problem is that over the years, since before the end of the Cold War, the Taliban were being fostered by the U.S. and others, and also in particular by groups in Pakistan, the intelligence services there. Since then, the Taliban have grown into something that can't be controlled anymore. And there's been a reverse process. Not only have they spread out from various camps inside the Pakistani border to Afghanistan, there's now a reverse flow of ideas and conviction and radicalism into Pakistan. For a number of years it's been very difficult to keep a lid on this. People like Musharraf now have to balance very cautiously between wanting to crack down on the danger that this represents and on the danger that the loss of American face would represent, and on the other hand, the major threat that domestically these groups pose to their own grip on power."
In an editorial today, the Pakistani English-language daily "The News" says that participating in any U.S. operation "will be just as hazardous as not participating in it. Islamabad faces a virtual Catch-22 situation, and much as it might want, its options are limited."
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani-based journalist and an expert on the Taliban. He splits Pakistan's dilemma into domestic and external fronts:
"The dilemmas that Pakistan faces? Of course, the primary dilemma is that it has been the primary supporter of the Taliban for the last seven years and it now has to do a complete turnaround in its policy. And that has also very serious domestic implications because it's not just the government which has been backing the Taliban, but also religious parties, extremist groups, et cetera. And they would have to be contained and controlled at the same time. So there's both an external front and a domestic front which the government would have to tackle."
Senior Pakistani officials are reported to have made private contacts with organizations, including militants, asking them to refrain from supporting the terrorist attack in the U.S.
Taylor says Musharraf is no stranger to such balancing acts, as in Pakistan's policy toward India. But here the choice is clearer, he says:
"General Musharraf is very sensitive to the issue of terrorism, and it's something he would find it easier to cooperate with. He would want to be seen as a responsible actor on the world stage because the world will be looking at him. If he shows any shortcomings or reluctance, the price would be heavier than it would be if he gets on and helps the U.S. in this circumstance and reaps some benefits later."
He says Pakistan could risk reactions similar to the aftermath of the 1998 strikes, but that this would be a "small price to pay":
"Pakistan is a difficult place in any case where they have terrorist attacks, mainly domestic terrorism aimed between different Islamic groups. So it's a pretty perilous place at the best of times. Some demonstrations wouldn't be something that would get in the way of cooperation in this instance."
He says some reaction is unavoidable due to the many Afghans living in Pakistan.
(NCA's Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report.)