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From the November 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 11)

Can Pakistan Strangle the Taliban?



Peter Popham, Independent on Sunday (centrist), London, England, Sept. 16, 2001. Popham is the paper’s correspondent in Islamabad.

Pakistan has the power to strangle the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan without American help. It can cut off its fuel, shut down its bank accounts, prevent the flow of food, and clamp down on the black-market trade that is the militia’s lifeline. These are all measures, it is reported here, that American officials have asked the Pakistani government to take.

If the “full cooperation” President Pervez Musharraf spoke of means anything, it means doing these sorts of things as well, America insists, as opening Pakistan’s skies to American jets and Pakistan’s soil to American ground troops, as well (why not?) as fighting shoulder to shoulder with those American ground forces.

So if Pakistan has it in its power to take these steps if, far more than any other nation, it is in a position to bring Osama bin Laden’s hosts to their knees, why does it challenge credulity that Pakistan should do so? The reason is that the Taliban is Pakistan’s baby—a brawling, truculent, maladjusted baby, but flesh of Pakistan’s flesh, faith of Pakistan’s faith. And the power demanding this act of infanticide is the power that probably most of Pakistan’s 140 million Muslims would be happy to characterize as the Great Satan.

Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership, whose archenemy Ahmad Shah Massoud has just been confirmed dead, addressed itself yesterday to this silent Pakistani majority when talking to journalists here. “If neighboring countries, particularly Islamic countries, gave a positive response to American demands for military bases, it would spark off extraordinary danger....It would draw us into an imposed war....The mujahideen would have to enter the territory of such a country,” said the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Saleem Zaeef. “It is a religious obligation on all Muslims,” he charged, “that if there is an attack on a Muslim nation, they must defend it.” If Pakistan threw its full weight behind the United States, the Islamic world would look on aghast much as it did when Saudi Arabia consented to be the West’s “platform” during the Gulf War. Saudi Arabia survived the loathing it provoked, but Saudi Arabia is a harsh autocracy, where, once the king has decided on a policy, no dissent is tolerated.

Pakistan is not a democracy, but it is far more anarchically open than Saudi Arabia has ever been. It is rife with Islamic zealots, many of them armed and hungry for jihad, holy war. It is the cradle of jihad, producing not only the Taliban but also groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba who are waging what one analyst here called “industrial-scale jihad” against India in Kashmir. Pakistan produces holy warriors the way other nations produce microchips or MBAs.

They are a squabbling crew, as faction-ridden as Marxists in the West once were, and include vicious sectarian groups devoted to bumping off Shiites or other Muslim minorities. No one group commands broad, nationwide loyalty. “The religious groups are very incoherent,” said a Western diplomat here. “No single religious leader, no single religious party, commands wide support.”

That is the fact on which President Musharraf must be pinning his hope. Because if, as a leaked report yesterday suggested, his support for the United States goes much further than announced, for Pakistan it will be a leap into the unknown. President Musharraf has been itching to put the fundamentalists in their box ever since he seized power nearly two years ago. His hero is Ataturk, who transformed Turkey from a theocracy into a modern, secular republic. He has made some progress in curbing the enemies of secularism in Pakistan. So Musharraf has led a drive to disarm this gun-saturated country; he banned two sectarian groups and tried to stop others from raising funds; he is trying to regulate the madrasas, the Islamic schools from which the Taliban sprang, and oblige them to teach other subjects besides the Quran.

Progress on all these fronts, however, has been halting, and sermons preached in mosques across the country on Friday gave an inkling as to why. “This is the wrath of Allah,” intoned the imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, referring to Tuesday’s attacks. “You Americans commit oppression everywhere, in Kashmir, in Palestine, and you do not see the blood spilled....But when Allah catches hold of you, there is no escape.”



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