Pakistan has become the front-line state in America's pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the man they are convinced masterminded the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September. Pakistan has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and, as a result, is facing anti-government protests and threats from the Taliban -- as well as bin Laden himself.
Islamabad, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Until the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan rarely figured on America's agenda.
During the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan had been an important U.S. ally. The U.S. used Pakistan as a staging post to supply Afghan resistance fighters with weapons and training, which helped bring about the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
During the past 10 years, the U.S. has distanced itself from Pakistan for a variety of reasons, including the country's close relations with the Taliban movement, the 1996 ouster of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Washington's concerns over Pakistan's nuclear-weapons tests, over which Washington imposed sanctions.
Times have changed in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Many of those U.S. sanctions have now been lifted in response to Pakistan's pledges of cooperation as the U.S. seeks to punish the Taliban for sheltering suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden. The two countries recently signed an agreement rescheduling Pakistan's $375 million debt to the U.S., and the International Monetary Fund has expressed its willingness to help fix Pakistan's ailing economy.
But for Pakistan, what will be the price of rekindling its friendship with America? At least four protesters have already been killed in anti-U.S. and anti-Pakistan demonstrations. A television network in Qatar received a faxed message purportedly signed by bin Laden that calls on the people of Pakistan to block the "American crusaders" from invading Afghanistan.
So far, anti-government demonstrations have been relatively small, but history professor Aslam Sayeed of Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University believes such protests could grow if America strikes militarily at Afghanistan -- especially if the U.S. uses Pakistani bases for such attacks.
Sayeed says such a backlash could come from Afghan and Pakistani extremists created and financed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He said both the U.S. and Arab states financed these extremists. The result, Sayeed says, is that "we created these asylums for these fanatics within our own political system, with the result that neither your mosques were safe, nor your [World] Trade Centers were safe."
Sayeed says the number of people who want to create a strict Taliban-like state in Pakistan is relatively small, but that those who do have enormous resources:
"They are provided with arms and ammunition, with funds, with [this] huge infrastructure of madrassahs [theological schools], and these people were trained, recruited, sent to Afghanistan as mujahedin to fight against the communists. They have not given that up -- unless the money runs out. Apparently, it is still coming from somewhere. This is the real problem that I as a Pakistani feel: What will happen to our own [society]?"
But Sayeed does not believe that a U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan would be the trigger for the so-called "clash of civilizations" of which some political observers are warning. He said he believes Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have much in common.
Sayeed said most Muslim countries are collaborating with the U.S.-led war on terrorism because they are targets of terrorism themselves. He said if the objective is to tame terrorism, then a united front will succeed. But he warns that if the agenda is to split the world into "civilized" and "uncivilized" parts, a prolonged conflict could ensue.
Sayeed predicts any military conflict in Afghanistan, combined with that nation's impoverished economy, will likely send millions more refugees fleeing across the 2,500-kilometer border with Pakistan. And he says he fears that among those refugees may be some with purposes other than survival:
"They speak the same language. They wear the same dress. They have the people from the same tribes living on this [Pakistani] side. So that's what my fear is -- that many of them will come to Pakistan to save their lives, and who knows if amongst them are those who will come not to save their lives but to disrupt the situation in Pakistan? That is the danger then that I do not rule [out]."
Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Najamuddin Sheikh says America is assembling a formidable military force in the region, but he believes that -- despite what he calls U.S. President George W. Bush's "bellicosity" -- the U.S. is not going to carry out indiscriminate strikes:
"There seems to be the recognition that the loss of innocent lives will not only make it virtually impossible to create and maintain a coalition, but I think equally importantly, it will do damage to Bush's standing within the United States."
Bin Laden reportedly has issued a call urging his followers to wage a holy struggle against those who side with America. And the Taliban has also threatened retaliation for what it sees as their betrayal by Islamabad. Sheikh, however, does not foresee clashes between the Taliban and Pakistan.
"By all reports I have seen so far there, it seems that there is no massing of Taliban troops on Pakistan's border, nor is there a concentration of Pakistani forces on the Afghan border."
Sheikh believes Pakistan has a role to play as a mediator between the Taliban and the outside world:
"We [Pakistan] have maintained our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, albeit on a rather reduced scale. We have told the Americans, and we have told the world, that we believe the rupture of diplomatic relations would be counterproductive and channels of communication should be kept open. And I think that the world accepts that this is the right way for Pakistan to proceed."
Sheikh agrees that the number of people who support the Taliban and want to install a similar fundamentalist Islamic regime in Pakistan is fairly small. In elections, he says, radical Islamic groups command between 10 and 15 percent of the vote.
Sheikh said anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan have predominantly been composed of theological students and have been snubbed by mainstream students and the general public. He says that, so far, the Taliban's "invocation" of a common enemy has had limited effect in Pakistan and that the situation is -- as he put it -- "totally containable."
Pakistani authorities banned what had been planned as a mass rally in Karachi today to express shock and anger over the 11 September attacks, as authorities feared it could trigger clashes with militants opposed to Pakistan's support for the U.S. campaign. That authorities felt it necessary to suppress even a rally against terrorism may be an ominous signal for what could lie ahead for Pakistan, once the anticipated U.S. attacks on Afghanistan begin.