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Sunday, September 16, 2001

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In a bind

It is a time of reckoning for Pakistan's military establishment as the Americans pile on the pressure, writes B. Muralidhar Reddy.

WITHIN HOURS of tragedy striking at the heart of the only superpower, the repercussions are felt halfway across the world in a tiny third world country. Pakistan is in the news for the role it will have to choose as the U.S. launches its revenge on the perpetrators of the September 11 carnage. The focus of U.S. investigations is on the Saudi fugitive, Osama Bin Laden, and his host, the Taliban.

As the closest ally of the Taliban, or, as many believe, the very architect of the militia, it is a time of reckoning for the military establishment in Islamabad. Either it chooses to carry the baggage of Islamic `fundamentalism' as the West sees it or cashes in on the `chance' it has been offered, to borrow the phrase of the U.S. President, Mr. George Bush.

The role it has played so far in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, who have in turn supported Osama Bin Laden, will be ignored if and only if it decides to support the U.S. in its terrorist hunt. Otherwise, it faces the risk of international isolation and wrath. And for a country like Pakistan, already buckling under economic, political and so- called moral sanctions, that could be the last straw.

The U.S. has placed its demands. These range from consent to use Pakistani airspace if and when it decides to launch retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama; closure of the border with Afghanistan and of fuel supply to the Taliban, and sharing of all information on Osama.

This is a tall order for any regime in Pakistan. Pakistan faces one of its biggest-ever challenges. And, needless to say, it is going to test Gen. Pervez Musharraf's mettle. Either Pakistan has to join the international war against terrorism or be pulverised alongside the extremists it might decide to support in keeping with its internal compulsions.

The high stakes for Pakistan vis-a-vis the Taliban can be gauged from the simple fact that Afghanistan has been a crucial component of Islamabad's foreign policy for nearly two and half decades now. Even before the September 11 catastrophe, there had been a furious debate within Pakistan for several months now on how the Afghanistan policy was a virtual disaster. The Pakistan establishment has used it as a support base for its policy on Kashmir, but the Taliban has affected the country's very social fabric. Taking the Taliban as a role model, an extreme- fundamentalist religious class has now become an internal threat, besides the Taliban becoming adventurous on the Durand Line itself in pursuit of a greater Pashtoon nation.

This is the dilemma for the military establishment as it braces to tackle the pressure from the U.S. for cooperation. The repercussions within Pakistan if the Musharraf Government were to give a blank cheque to the Americans were evident from the reactions to the prospect. Political, religious and militant outfits have all spoken in one voice against allowing U.S. troops to operate from Pakistani soil.

That does not mean all of them are happy with the Government's Afghan policy. In fact, a majority in Pakistan believes that it is a sure recipe for disaster - the `Talibanisation' of Pakistan. However, the overwhelming public opinion in Pakistan is to preserve `national honour' and not to appear to be acting as a puppet of the U.S. While there is wide- ranging sympathy for the victims of the tragedy, one cannot ignore the sentiment that this is perceived as payback time for long-term U.S. policies in the region.

In the eye of the storm is Osama bin Laden. Drawing his might from the fortunes his family made in the construction business in Saudi Arabia, he has achieved hero status in the Arab and Muslim world. His organisation, Al Qaeda has been linked with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 killings of 19 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia, the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam Embassy bombings and the attack on USS Cole in Yemen.

He is considered the force behind getting people from all over to join in a pan-Islamic movement of jehadis, mujahideen and fidayeen. The Taliban gave him refuge when all others turned him away following pressure from the U.S. Today, the chances that the Taliban does not know where Osama actually is are not that low. He is known to operate with highly sophisticated communcations equipment. The Taliban chief, Mullah Omar, considers him a friend and an ally but the regime seems nervous in the face of the dangers his presence poses to their very existence today.

However hard the Musharraf regime might try, there is no way it can do any balancing act. It is time to take sides despite the consequences in both the options. It is a million- dollar question how Gen. Musharraf will respond to the challenge. Will he turn it to his advantage and rule happily ever after or allow the fundamentalists to take control and lead his nation into an economic abyss and obscurantism. Irrespective of what he does, the politics of South Asia is poised for a total overhaul.

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