Why the U.S. Anti-Terror War is a Crisis for Pakistan

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B.K. BANGASH/AP

Pro-Taliban supporters chant anti-U.S. slogans at a rally in Pakistan

The road to Kabul runs through Islamabad. And that's bad news for Pakistan's military government, which faces a profound identity crisis over U.S. requests for assistance against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. While General Pervez Musharraf has promised support for U.S. efforts against terrorism, it has also vowed not to participate in any military actions beyond its own borders. And while Pakistan will likely allow the U.S. to use its airspace to strike against targets in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether it will act against Pakistani organizations allied with Bin Laden, or allow the U.S. to station ground troops in Pakistan.

Pakistan's ambiguity is based on the fact that its roles as U.S. ally and as Afghanistan power-broker are increasingly at odds. Pakistan had been a key U.S. regional ally in the Cold War, particularly during the Reagan administration's proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Its territory provided the staging ground and its intelligence service the conduit for billions of dollars of U.S. covert aid funneled to Islamist fighters in Afghanistan, including Osama Bin Laden, who were waging 'jihad' against the Soviet invaders.

Between a rock and a hard place

But now that Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts are the likely targets of a U.S. ‘jihad' against terrorism, Pakistan's government is being pulled in two directions: The Taliban is essentially Pakistan's protégé, and many Pakistanis are fiercely supportive of both the Afghan militia and of Bin Laden himself. But Pakistan's key traditional allies — the United States and China, which is facing a Bin Laden-backed insurgency in its Muslim western provinces — have made clear that they expect Islamabad to do its bit for the international campaign against terrorism.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Pakistan's role in the helping the Taliban to power was based in large part on self-interest. Afghanistan descended into chaos once the superpowers lost interest in 1989 — the Soviets withdrew as a prelude amid the collapse of their empire, and the U.S. stayed out of the ongoing battle of the mujahedeen to unseat Moscow's puppet government. By 1992, the Afghan warriors President Reagan had heralded as the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers" were each others' throats in a bloody civil war that had killed many thousands of Afghans and showed no signs of ending. Pakistan helped create and train the Taliban, in the hope that its defeat of most rival factions would stabilize Afghanistan on Pakistan's terms.

A crisis for Pakistan

Bin Laden passed most of the civil war years in far-off Sudan, but after being expelled as a result of U.S. pressure he returned to Afghanistan in 1996. And the Taliban welcomed him as a hero of the anti-Soviet 'jihad' and a man who commanded both means and military expertise. Although their priorities were somewhat at odds — Bin Laden was waging a global ‘jihad' against America; the Taliban was trying to build their Mediaeval Islamist state — the relationship between them became extremely close. One of Bin Laden's wives is the daughter of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and many of the Taliban's best troops have been trained in Bin Laden camps and are fiercely loyal to the Saudi terrorist. Harboring Bin Laden has frustrated the Taliban's efforts to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But it has created an ongoing crisis for Pakistan.

The Taliban warned Friday that it would attack any neighbor who supports Western military action against Afghanistan. And while nuclear-armed Pakistan is more than a match for the Afghan zealots, the problem is that many of its own people may turn violently against General Musharraf's government if he supports U.S. action.

The Kashmir connection

Pakistan's primary regional interest lies not in Afghanistan, of course, but in driving India out of the disputed region of Kashmir. And the two conflicts are not unrelated. Many of the Kashmir guerrillas backed by Pakistan have been trained in Afghanistan — indeed, the 1998 U.S. cruise missile strikes on camps associated with Bin Laden reportedly killed five Pakistani intelligence officers and a number of Kashmiri fighters. And many of these groups identify with the Taliban and Bin Laden. Fierce support for the Kashmir insurgency remains an article of faith in Pakistani politics, but that has put the U.S. increasingly at loggerheads with Islamabad. For example, two of the key Kashmiri militant groups have been placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, but Pakistani authorities have been less than fully cooperative with U.S. requests to rein in these groups and to put pressure on the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden.

Now the Pakistani government finds itself caught between its commitment to help the U.S. and its commitment to the Taliban — the latter, together with Bin Laden himself, far more popular on the impassioned streets of Pakistan. Supporting U.S. military action against Bin Laden and the Taliban will inevitably spark a dangerous domestic backlash in Pakistan. But failing to support the U.S. effort will leave Islamabad dangerously isolated. General Musharraf finds himself at a crossroads, and very soon, something will have to give.

With reporting by Hanna Bloch/Islamabad