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PAKISTAN'S COMPLEX ROLE

Caught between the rock of American resolve and the hard place of Afghanistan's radical fundamentalist Taliban oligarchy, Pakistan has opted for the rock. Good choice. America is in no mood to soften, and Afghanistan is clearly wrong.

Shared religious zealotry aside, Afghanistan cannot at the same time harbor a terrorist of Osama bin Laden's magnitude -- and his al-Qaida terrorist organization -- and hope to belong to the community of civilized nations.

The Taliban has refused to meet U.S. demands that it turn bin Laden over to American authorities. Instead, Taliban leaders and Taliban radio broadcasts call for a holy war against those who would attack the country and an "innocent" bin Laden. In neighboring Pakistan, thousands protest their country's decision to cooperate with the hated United States.

Pakistan remains crucial to any American retaliation against the elusive terrorist leader or his organization. To cut risks and increase the impacts of any military strike, America needs the use of Pakistani air space and perhaps ground troop staging areas near the border. To understand, track and perhaps even penetrate bin Laden's organization, information and contacts from Pakistan's intelligence agency could prove invaluable.

But Pakistan is also one of three nations that recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan -- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the others -- and a growing proportion of its population and its government, and especially its police and military, have been "Talibanized" in recent years. The religious schools that trained Taliban officials and bin Laden terrorists alike are in Pakistan.

Siding with America could carry a steep price for the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has pledged "full support" for America, and sent a delegation to Kandahar and Kabul to convey America's demands and emphasize the likely consequences of refusal. Already, a leading Muslim cleric who initially condemned the terrorist attacks has called for a jihad against Pakistan if military attacks are launched from Pakistani soil.

For these and other reasons, the ability of the Bush administration to build an international coalition could be the key test in this new struggle. China, for example, has close ties to Pakistan. Already concerned about Muslim separatists in northwest provinces who have more in common with central Asians than ethnic Chinese -- and who may have been trained in bin Laden camps -- China can lean on Pakistan to solidify its support. But it might also seek a quid-pro-quo from the United States in its own disputes with "separatists" in Taiwan and Tibet, as Pakistan may seek U.S. help in its dispute with India over control of Kashmir.

This is a tangled diplomatic web that President Bush is attempting to weave. But the goal for now must remain clearly focused on bin Laden, the most important player in the new global terrorism hierarchy. It must be bolstered by sound investigative work and shared evidence, and it must also ferret out bin Laden's key allies. Anything less, and the international coalition crumbles before its work is fairly begun.

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