Pakistan Tip-toeing on a Live Wire
by Rakesh Rampertab

LeftEditor's Prelude: Every since the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, Pakistan has been plunged into the "war on terrorism" and remains at its epicenter. Pakistan has recently been accused by Washington of playing a double standard, of getting financial aid (billions) and still coming up short by not bringing in Bin Laden. Over the past two weeks, there have at least two assassination attempts on the life President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Yesterday's attempt was almost successful, with some dozen or so bystanders killed as his car passed by.

In the first attempt, a bridge exploded mere seconds after his car passed over it. This resulted in the General announcing that he would step down as chief of the military, and it was the first sign that he was, even subtly, forced to bend. I am posting this article here (written in October 2001 after the 911 attacks, which showed how risky the situation is in Pakistan. It was originally publiched in Stabroek News and The Guyana Chronicle on October 12, 2003. The AP photo shows the President at a press conference after the second attempt on his life.


As the US continues its campaign “Operation Enduring Freedom,” Pakistan, the most important Islamic nation-player finds itself tip-toeing on a live wire. The September 11 attacks in America have forced the Islamic republic to make what may result as its most decisive decision of the early 21st century; support the US against Pakistan's own brainchild, the Talibans, or refuse and become not only an isolated pariah state, but a target board for future US-led attacks against nations that spawn terrorism.

The General-turned-President, Pervez Musharraf, decided to support the US in a decision that is both sensible and dangerous. For him, “Pakistan comes first, and everything else second,” the general explained, adding a dose of patriotism by rightfully claiming that his decision will bring desperately needed Western favors in Pakistan's confrontation with India. Briefly, Pakistanis held their breath and believed, until bombs and cruise missiles descended upon their friends in Afghanistan.

Let's rewind to Sept. 10. Pakistan was a developing republic straddled with all the ingredients for the making of a civil war; immense poverty, some 37 bln in foreign debts, a sunken economy, sprawling corruption, a history of coups and violent political killings, and, a new member to the club, religious fundamentalism (key for its fight for the India-controlled part of the Muslim-populated Kashmir). Rewind further to 1977; it was another military man, General Zia ul-Haq, who swept into power, bringing Nasser-like efforts of Muslim renaissance, only that it wasn't Arabism but rather, Islamism. General Haq moved to truly Islamize the pillars of Pakistan's society, including the military. He established madrassas (religious schools), especially in towns and cities along the Afghan border; its most famous taliban (religious student) is the Taliban's current leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Today, some 30% of Pakistan's military officers have strong Islamic leanings. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, Pakistani religious students joined in the fighting as part of the mujahadeen guerilla faction. The country became a conduit via which the US supplied arms to resist the Russians.

After the Russians retreated weary and in tatters, the CIA followed suit, leaving thousands of displaced Islamic fighters. Some remained in Afghanistan, some returned home, and some went southward to fight for Kashmir. By the mid 90s, the Talibans had not only seized control of Afghanistan from the Northern Alliance (NA) (aligned with India), setting up a likable picture for Pakistan, their hardline militant philosophy had become a favorite among Pakistan's poor in what people referred to as the “Talibanization” of Pakistan.

Then Mohammad Atta flew a Boeing 757 over Fifth Avenue in New York City, low enough to hit apartment buildings, before sharking in on the North Tower. Thousands of miles away, this gave the Western-leaning General Musharraf the opportunity to do what was virtually impossible before; arrest this “Talibanization” drastically. Where the fundamentalist camps were previously perceived as necessary breeding grounds for Islamic militants needed for the Kashmir struggle, now they became a serious threat to the country's majority of moderates. Where the Talibans were Muslim cousins for all, now there was the US pressure and the future of Pakistan. If anyone can lead Pakistan into pro-Western modernity, it is this general. He is, unquestionably, the strongest of Pakistani leaders to emerge in the past 20 years, and as general-rulers come, an exceptionally shrewd politician. It is one of the reasons for the silence we hear from other politicians. But the hardline Muslims, however, despite never achieving more than 6% of the electorate at general elections, represent a sword that is already dividing the polarized nation.

They make Pakistan an unanswered question, especially if the attacks continue and Muslim blood is shed as we’ve seen in recent pro-Taliban protests in Pakistan. While major cities like Islamabad are still relatively normal (word used lightly here), it's in towns like Quetta and Peshawar where Afghan and Pashtun lineage exist (50% of Afghans are of this tribe), that the police are having severe problems with maintaining order. Across Pakistan there are more Kalashnikovs than mosques, and no shortage of men who can operate them. In an effort to quell some of this fervency, at least three prominent mullahs have been placed under house arrest. But others who were previously silent have threatened to take up large-scale action.

The military, now regarded as an agent for the US, is another hotbed of passions. Traditionally, no other social element has more influence in Pakistani politics than the men in battle fatigues. Already, President Musharraf has taken steps to prevent a possible mutiny. First, he extended his term as Chief of the Army (it ended last week) for another 3 years. The three generals who removed the previous government (Gen. Musharraf, then Chief of the army, was on a plane returning from a foreign trip), all of whom have pro-Taliban leanings, were demoted. Two others were removed and replaced by close friends of the president; one is Lt. Gen. Muhammed Yousuf, a very pro-Western figure. Additionally, the leader of the ISI, Pakistan's powerful intelligence-gathering body, was also replaced.

All of this leaves Pakistan (not Afghanistan) as the hottest region of this conflict. All eyes should stay on Pakistan. Add a few other ingredients and it gets really nasty. The Talibans have already engaged in small gunplay with Pakistani soldiers at the Afghan border. The feeling of betrayal will not disappear when Al-Queda is uprooted; actually, it will spread as we've witnessed among the Palestinians only days ago. The NA, now revived, most likely will dominate a future Afghan government, even if it's “broad-based,” as President Musharraf is demanding. While it recently rejected the president's call for new talks, India has given warning that it may be forced (as has the US) to invade Pakistani-controlled Kashmir if another terrorist attack on Indian soil is felt. On one hand, there seemed to be more hope than ever since 1947 of becoming a new developing state, now that the IMF has pledged new loans, economic sanctions have been lifted, and the West agreed to stronger dialogue and cooperation. On the other, there will be the enemies; a stronger India and possibly an antagonistic Afghanistan. Ironically, the greatest threat for a modern Pakistan may not come from outside its borders, but rather, from the unprecedented division now growing between its moderate and hardline Muslims...right from within.

December 25, 2003
© 2001