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  November 6, 2001  

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Pakistan walks a bed of nails
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In trying to appease widely divergent interests, ranging from those of the United States to the Taliban and its own people, Pakistan is walking on a policy bed of nails.

Compounding the problem is that Washington, having secured Islamabad's support in the war against terrorism, has not been as forthcoming as decision-makers in the military government would have liked in sharing their long-term plans and objectives for the region.

Starting with capturing Osama bin Laden "dead or alive", the US focus has shifted to ousting the Taliban, then to fashioning a future regime in Afghanistan, and the US has also hinted that "other countries" could be American military targets, a reference to Iraq.

This has caused some muddling on the part of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf over a range of issues, including the US-led strikes on Afghanistan, the inclusion of some elements of the Taliban in a new, broad-based government, militant religious organizations, and anthrax attacks.

When the US began air strikes on Afghanistan more than four weeks ago, Pakistan took a hard line against the possibility of a broad-based post-Taliban government in which the Northern Alliance or exiled former king Zahir Shah would be represented. Rather, it emphasized that it wanted to cultivate a new leadership within the Taliban - the so-called moderates - who would rebel against Mullah Omar.

However, such a breed appears not to exist, as Pakistan has been singularly unsuccessful in splitting the ranks of the Taliban. As a result, Musharraf reluctantly agreed to the participation of Zahir Shah and some form of participation from the many parties that make up the Northern Alliance.

Even so, Pakistan refused to speak out against the Taliban, even refusing to sever diplomatic ties with Kabul, making it the only country in the world to have formalities. Suddenly, though, this changed, and Musharraf started to strongly criticize Mullah Omar in interviews with the press. Once his views were printed, though, they were immediately denied by his military spokesman.

At this time, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Zaeef, was invited to the army's general headquarters in Rawalpindi for talks prior to him traveling to Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan, where the Taliban leadership has its base. Full details of the talks between Zaeef and senior military officials were not released, but it is said that the envoy was appraised of the fact that Pakistan was being forced into the position it was taking as a result of committing its support to the US - that is, worry about what we do, not what we say. In turn, the Taliban is now refusing to speak to Pakistan.

Initially, Musharraf took the position that the US should halt airstrikes during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, due to begin around the middle of this month. However, with the US firm that attacks will continue if necessary, Musharraf fell in line.

His position is complicated by the recent visits of several Saudi princes to Pakistan in the past few days. They have stated in categorical terms that they will plead for the attacks on Afghanistan to stop during Ramadan. Now it appears that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Arab countries will take a firm stand in calling for a break in the action in Afghanistan.

Pakistan also has modified its policy toward Afghan refugees fleeing death and destruction. Seeking to assuage humanitarian concerns over the 65,000 Afghan refugees who forcibly entered Pakistan in the past month, and another 30,000 waiting to barge in, Musharraf has established a special President's Relief Fund for Afghans which will collect donations for the relief, relocation and rehabilitation of the refugees. But Musharraf says that Pakistan's borders will remain closed, like those of Afghanistan's other neighbors, with assistance provided to camps on Afghanistan's side of the border.

On the internal front, many traditional policy lines have been turned on their heads. The powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the mother of all Pakistani militant groups - especially those fighting in Indian-held Kashmir - now finds itself standing against the groups. However, mentally, this fact has not really sunk in, and despite intense American pressure the Pakistani intelligence community is reluctant to curb the militant elements.

Nevertheless, the nexus between the military and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which has in the past fought against political governments at the instigation of the army, and which also fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir, seems to have been broken.

The leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, has finally been placed under house arrest in Peshawar and it appears that despite strong opposition the government will try him on sedition charges for allegedly inciting army commanders to turn against Musharraf.

Another example of flip-flop policy involves former senior Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chawdry Abdul Majid, who were taken into detention in Lahore on October 23. Initially, a military spokesman said that they were under the protective custody of Pakistani agencies because their lives were under threat. Later, it was admitted that the men had been interrogated, but not by US intelligence agents as some reports indicated.

Also, Pakistani authorities have now admitted that there is unrest in Jacobabad in Sindh province, and that some people have been arrested. However, they have denied the presence of a "dacoit alliance" suicidal group that allegedly claimed that it would blow up Jacobabad airbase. The dacoits (bandits) in the region are very politically aware and fought against the military regime of the late dictator Zia ul-Haq. They also supported the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy led by Benazir Bhutto in the 1980s.

The same confusion has been reflected in the reporting of three cases of anthrax in Pakistan. The first two cases were reported at a computer firm and a bank. Both were downplayed in the press on government advice. Later, the government denied them. This happened, too, when the third case was reported in Karachi in the head offices of the Jang Group of Newspapers - the largest news group in the country and publisher of the largest daily, Jang, in Urdu, and the second largest English daily, News International.

Asia Times Online talked to the Group Editor of Jang, Mehmood Sham.
Asia Times Online: One of your staff members was delivered mail recently carrying anthrax. What are your observations?

Mehmood Sham: It seems that this plan was local. The mail was delivered by hand. It shows that anthrax is available in Karachi. It is not a question of whether it was brought by someone from abroad or not. The issue is that it exists in Karachi.

Asia Times Online: What action was taken by the government?

Mehmood Sham: We immediately tested the powder. These tests were conducted in the Aga Khan [Medical] University lab, which is considered the best in the country. As they declared that anthrax spores were found in the powder, we reported the matter to the police. They arrested the office bearer of the organization which allegedly sent the mail. However, the police were just doing their routine business because it is likely that the name of the organization used was not the real one.

Asia Times Online: Would you comment on the government's behavior in general, as it seems not to be taking this issue seriously, and insists that the matter is not confirmed and that the powder would be further tested in its own facilities at the National Institute of Health?

Mehmood Sham: One case was reported at the Habib Bank Zurich. We confirmed through our sources that one of the employees had tested positive. But the government did not take this issue seriously. Hospital sources where the test was taken confirmed it, but the provincial health minister denied it. When the case occurred at the Jang, the government did not respond initially. However, when the international media reported the issue, it bothered the government, which issued a statement that the powder would be tested at the National Institute of Health. This was although we had already tested the material at the Aga Khan University labs, which are the most credible and most expensive. A reporter friend of the [affected] correspondent at the Jang said that the suspect powder had been sent to the National Institute of Health for tests. The administration there returned the material and said that they did not have the facilities to test the material. We believe that the government is unnecessarily trying to play down the issue. These sorts of cases should be brought into the limelight so that proper precautions can be adopted and so that the people behind these evil designs can be taken to task.

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