By Charles Recknagel/Siyavosh Ardalan
The Pakistani government has organized large-scale rallies for today to demonstrate popular support for its decision to cooperate with the United States in the new war on terrorism. The rallies are to counter protests by Islamic militant groups against any use of Pakistani soil for anticipated U.S.-led strikes against Osama bin Laden's suspected terrorist network and the Taliban militia that harbors him. We talk with RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan, who is in Islamabad, about today's events.
Prague, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is calling for a massive public turnout for today's annual Solidarity Day celebrations to show that most Pakistanis support his decision to cooperate with the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
The streets of major cities, including Islamabad, Karachi, and Peshawar, have been plastered for days with posters exhorting Pakistanis to turn out in droves for the pro-government rallies scheduled across the country.
RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan is in Islamabad and reports that the rallies are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people in major cities.
He says the turnout is intended to demonstrate that the Islamist militant groups that staged violent protests against the government's pro-U.S. policies on 21 September are a vocal, but small, minority. At least two people were killed in those protests, which saw more than 5,000 militants march in Peshawar. Several thousand Pakistanis also protested in Karachi, Islamabad, Quetta, and Lahore.
Ardalan says that for today's rallies, police and other security forces are being deployed in large numbers to ensure events proceed peacefully. Siyavosh Ardalan:
"There is a strong police presence in the capital. It is not expected that there will be much in the way of clashes or confrontations [with Islamic militants] in Islamabad, where the government can expect the highest number of its supporters to turn up. But in the city of Peshawar, where you have a large number of Taliban sympathizers and [where] there are many [ethnic] Pashtuns living there and many Afghans who have expressed pro-Taliban sentiments, there might be some trouble."
Ardalan says the Islamist militant groups have not threatened to disrupt the pro-government rallies, but some of their leaders have promised counter-demonstrations for tomorrow. Ardalan:
"The fundamentalist groups that have so far been taking part in anti-U.S. demonstrations have not threatened to disrupt the pro-government demonstrations. However, the spokesman, Mr. Fawzi Hussein, of the Islamic Movement [Jamiat-e Islam] which spearheads this anti-U.S. coalition, has said that they will stage counter-demonstrations the day after these pro-government demonstrations."
The extent of the Islamic militant movement's appeal to mainstream Pakistanis is believed to be limited. Analysts say the movement's political parties, which include the Jamiat-e Islam and the more radical Jamiat Ulema-e Islam with ties to the Taliban, have never scored more than 2 percent of the popular vote in legislative elections. The Pakistani legislature is currently dissolved following Musharraf's rise to power in a coup in October 1999.
Today's pro-government rallies come as Musharraf has achieved several foreign-policy successes in recent days to make his pro-U.S. position more palatable to Pakistan's mainstream.
These successes include Washington's announcement on 23 September that it is lifting sanctions imposed on both Pakistan and India over the two countries carrying out tit-for-tat demonstrations of their nuclear capabilities in 1998. The sanctions had included a ban on military sales to both countries and the blockage of certain types of development aid.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have also signed an agreement in Islamabad that reschedules $375 million worth of Pakistani debt to America. U.S. officials have said that in the coming weeks, Washington will be looking at other ways in which it might support Pakistan's economic development and reform program.
Such financial measures are welcome news for Pakistan, which has a foreign debt of some $36 billion, repayment of which consumes 60 percent of Islamabad's revenues. The size of the debt is a staggering burden on the country's hard-pressed economy and has slowed government development programs to a standstill.
To consolidate popular support for his pro-U.S. policy, Musharraf has met in recent days with a cross-section of prominent Pakistanis, including retired generals and civilian politicians. He has already gone on national television to tell the public that in order to protect Pakistan's security and future, he had no choice but to side with the U.S.
Among the groups that have thrown their weight behind Musharraf is the Muslim League, one of the country's largest mainstream political parties. The secretary-general of the party, Gore Ayub Khan, told Persian Service correspondent Ardalan that his party backs all aspects of the government's position. But he said he worries that any military action could cause a new flood of refugees into Pakistan. Gore Ayub Khan says:
"We support the government's stand. The government has agreed to provide airspace for use to the Americans or the coalition and also for logistics support to be provided to the Americans or a coalition of forces that do have any activity in Afghanistan. However, we are mindful of the fact that if there is an air attack or missile attacks on Afghanistan, or ground forces or special forces operate in Afghanistan, there also is every possibility of civilian casualties."
He continues: "Now, those civilian casualties, if they are inflicted, then the wounded would naturally be evacuated to Pakistan, since there are no facilities in Afghanistan itself. And similarly, there would be a tremendous amount of refugees coming into Pakistan. We already have 2 million refugees in Pakistan and possibly we might have a million or more coming in if this conflict escalates or if it lingers on for a long time."
The prospect of new Afghan refugees is among ordinary Pakistanis' greatest concerns about Washington's plans to retaliate against the Taliban if it refuses to turn over bin Laden and other suspected terrorist leaders.
A governor of a northwest province in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan said yesterday that Pakistan could not open its borders to Afghan asylum-seekers because of security reasons.
But Governor Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah said Pakistan would shelter refugees who succeed in entering the country illegally.