Strikes Start; Pakistan on Edge

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Watching the President's address in Pakistan

When the TV flashed the news of U.S. and British airstrikes against Afghanistan around 10 pm on Sunday night in Pakistan, it was like a storm finally breaking after a long period of tense waiting. There had been a growing sense in Pakistan late Sunday that the strikes were about to happen. UN staffers were contacted early Sunday evening by their offices and told that "should anything happen" they were expected to stay at home on Monday and not come to work. A U.S. diplomat who had invited me and some colleagues to dinner called to say that he would be "working all night" and had to call off the dinner.

Pentagon officials have confirmed that the U.S. and Britain launched 50 cruise missiles against strategic sites inside Afghanistan. They also said the attacks included B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers. The strikes are reportedly to be against Afghan air bases and suspected terror camps. Local sources have confirmed that the initial wave of attacks struck the airport in Kandahar. One immediate goal is to render useless any Taliban air defenses. In a televised address earlier this afternoon, President Bush said the Taliban "will pay a price" for not meeting U.S. demands.

In Pakistan we are expecting strong and potentially violent anti-western demonstrations by the fundamentalist Islamic groups in the wake of the attack. Already some prominent mullahs have condemned the American actions. In an apparently prophylactic move earlier today, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, one of the most prominent fundamentalist Muslim clerics who heads Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, and who is one of the most vocal supporters of the Taliban in Pakistan, was put under house arrest by the Pakistani police. In the last two weeks Rehman had been travelling the country inciting crowds to demonstrate against America, and he was clearly seen as a threat to stability on the streets of Pakistan. This suggests that the Pakistani authorities had been informed that the airstrikes were imminent. But it remains to be seen whether the Pakistani security forces can — or are willing to — crack down on fundamentalist pro-Taliban demonstrators.