Geography has once again imposed a crucial role on Pakistan in the conflict this time between the US-inspired coalition and the Taliban government of Afghanistan which is providing shelter to Osama Bin Ladin and his cohorts.
Although Pakistan has joined the coalition in the war against terrorism, particularly as its own people have often been victims of terrorists’ violence, it is the only country now which continues to recognize diplomatically the government of Afghanistan and hosts its ambassador in Islamabad. That is perhaps the sole window of Afghanistan to the rest of the world and therefore the logic behind its retention.
In the ten-year Afghan war against Soviet occupation, Pakistan played the crucial role of conduit for the supply of arms etc. to land-locked Afghanistan. It provided shelter to 3.5 million Afghan refugees. Most of them are still on Pakistani soil; a million more are likely to join them.
For want of proper schools, the children of the refugees had to receive whatever education was readily available to them at the religious seminaries. They emerged from these crucibles indoctrinated with antiquated and outlandish notions of Islamic theology, a tunnel vision, and little knowledge of secular subjects. At the end of the war in 1989, they returned to Afghanistan to find their motherland ripped apart by warring tribal chiefs. They joined the ranks of Taliban under the leadership of Mulla Umar, a young cleric who had lost an eye in the war with the Communists.
One good deed the Taliban did for Afghanistan was to deweaponize 90 per cent of the country and clear it of warring tribal lords. They could not, however, get rid of the remainder which was under the domination of another war hero, Ahmad Shah Masood. He was assassinated only a couple of days before the terrorist attacks on WTC and Pentagon.
The United Front, as the incoherent northern alliance of Masood is now called, has one thing in common -its sentiment of revenge against the Taliban who had successfully confined it to a corner of the country. This has endeared the Front to the United States but not to the extent of being built up as the alternative to the Taliban. The chief reason is that the Front lacks the support of the Pushtoons who constitute the majority of Afghan population. Efforts are currently being made to have a broad-based government set up in Kabul through the good offices of ex-king Zahir Shah.
Before that happens, the US-led coalition would have to eliminate Bin Laden, his aides, his training camps and his avid supporters among Taliban. At the time of writing this piece, final warnings had already issued to the Taliban by the US, Britain and President Musharraf. Action might have commenced by the time you read this.
The scenario presents a serious threat, a challenge and an opportunity to President Musharraf. His adroitness in tackling the situation is on test.
The Afghan Defense Council, a hodge-podge of some three dozen set-ups some existing on letterheads only has threatened to plunge the country into a civil war if the US troops were allowed to attack Afghanistan, ‘our Islamic neighbor’ from Pakistani soil.
The Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), the most prominent of this reactionary grouping, brought out a pro-Taliban rally in Quetta last Tuesday (Oct.2) attended by thousands of its followers. The JUI runs many of the seminaries where Taliban were educated.
Noteworthy is the fact that the demonstration was arranged in defiance of government orders banning all rallies. Normally, the government resorts to force to disburse such an assemblage. This time the defiance of the orders was, it appears, calculatedly ignored to let the extremists blow off their steam. This incident, instead of serving as a catharsis, might encourage the emotionally fired zealots to come out with bigger and even violent demonstrations. Slogans at the rally called Musharraf a traitor.
In an interview with the CNN the other day, President Musharraf assured his listeners that the supporters of Taliban in his country were in a negligible minority and that the majority of the population was with him. One hopes that he has not under-estimated the threat.
To appreciate the predicament of Pakistan, it would be relevant to remember that the country could hardly escape the fallout of the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran led by the clerics of that country, the decade-long (1979-89) Jihad in Afghanistan and the emergence of Taliban in mid-nineties.
During the Aghan war, Gen. Zia, then the military ruler of Pakistan, projected himself as a soldier of Islam fighting the Communist infidels. He talked incessantly about the Islamisation of society and the resurgence of Islam, gave himself a 5-year extension to pursue his Islamisation policy, and lent palpable support to religious parties the first time in Pakistan’s history that they received so much significance.
Dissent, particularly of the secular and progressive sectors, was ruthlessly suppressed by his coercive state agencies. Economy, social sector and education were pushed to the back burners.
Education, till then a government responsibility, was conveniently passed on to the private enterprise. It became a business and went out of reach of even the lower middle class. Religious schools, run as charities, moved in to fill up the vacuum. Those who came out of such schools were fit mainly to be ‘Imams’ of mosques or teachers at seminaries. Poverty bred militancy. The Afghan war had supplied plenty of assault weapons. Armed religious gangs started sectarian killings in the name of religion, that too in places of worship. This was an unheard of form of violence in the entire history of Pakistan.
These religious fanatics maintain their secret arsenals. They are, of course, no match to the might of Pakistan army. But they are unlikely to surrender their weapons docilely.
Pakistan is thus being stalked on the one hand by its own religious fanatics and on the other by the fear of the US-led war on the terrorists of Afghanistan getting out of hand and engulfing other Muslim countries.
The rejuvenated Pak-US ties would get disrupted if President Bush overreaches himself, in the flush of victories in Afghanistan, and turns towards some other Muslim country, say Iran, Iraq, Libya or Syria, in his “crusade” against terrorism. It might trigger a global backlash of Muslim anger and stoke the flame of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
Such a fear is somewhat substantiated by the deployment of 29,000 military personnel, 350 fighter planes, and a formidable armada in ‘the expected theatre of operations’. It is like using a cannon to kill a cockroach.
Fortunately, moderate and saner counsels have of late superceded the jingoistic utterances in immediate reactions to the heinous and dastardly attacks at WTC and Pentagon. Events, one can be sure, will give a lie to the evil prediction of Samuel Huntington in his ‘Clash of Civilizations’. The world is not ready for such a clash; there is no war psychosis.