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Pakistan's choice
By Mushahid Hussein

Islambad: Not since the Bangladesh War in 1971 has Pakistan been faced with such a grim regional scenario where even the stability, and long-term survival of the Pakistani state can be affected by the decisions taken and the course of events.
However reprehensible the carnage and the crimes against humanity committed on September 11, which killed thousands of innocent Americans and hundreds of Muslims from almost a dozen countries, the US response being fashioned alongside its new-found friends in Pakistan could be a catalyst for an unwinnable, long-drawn war that could quickly turn into a Vietnam-like quagmire, but this time without frontiers.

Acting more out of anger to salve the wounded pride and the justifiable fury felt by the American people plus the humiliation at the impunity and scale of the crime, the American 'shoot-first- ask questions-later' approach could spark:
> A new confrontation between the United States and the Muslim World;
> A conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan (the Taleban have already threatened reprisals if Pakistani territory is used against them);
> A dangerous cleavage within Pakistani society that would sow the seeds of another Algeria, pitching the Establishment against the jehadis.
The easy part for the US has been to declare war, but who and where is the enemy? Can the enemy be identified as an individual, institutional or country, otherwise the US will end up chasing shadows.

Several ironies marked by U-turns in policy abound, both for the United States and Pakistan.

Discarding its unilateralism, the US has now embraced multilateralism, eagerly seeking support from previously reviled quarters, ranging from the UN to Beijing and Islamabad.

Then there is the irony of the United States, whose colossal intelligence failure is manifest in the inability to detect 71 Americans or US-based foreign nationals (19 suicide bombers plus 52 collaborators) from painstakingly planning the September 11 criminal acts in its financial and military heartland, but which now somehow feels capable to 'smoke out Osama bin Laden' from some hole in far-away Afghanistan.

Finally, there is the irony of Washington colluding with Third World entities and then turning on them after they outgrow their mentors. The expanding list includes Noriega, Saddam and now the Taleban.

Pakistan's policy U-turn revolves around burying a 20-year-old Afghan policy pursued for 'strategic depth' on its Western flank, a code word for a pliable regime in Kabul, and ditching the Taleban without even batting an eyelid.

Having failed to curb, contain or crush terrorism at home, which is now its number one problem with frequent target killings of prominent professionals and public figures, Pakistan is joining a US-led coalition for a regional terrorist manhunt. And finally, Pakistan created and nurtured leaders and groups in Afghanistan only to end up fighting them. It started with Gulbadin Hekmatyar, then Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani and now the Taleban, all allies-turned-adversaries.

This would be the natural comeuppance for short-sighted policies that seek opportunistic alliances at the expense of long-term interests. In that respect, both for the US and Pakistan, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

Three aspects are relevant as decisions are made in Washington and implemented via Islamabad on combating the scourge of terrorism.

First, for Muslims, whose faith teaches them that 'killing an innocent person (NOT Muslim, but any innocent person irrespective of gender, race or religion) is like murder of humanity', the crimes on September 11 deserve the widespread, across-the-board condemnation by Muslims. But Muslims find it difficult to delink the issue of terror and violence from the sufferings of Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq or Kashmir. Rightly or wrongly, they draw a linkage between American foreign policy towards the Muslim World and the roots of terrorism.

If the campaign against terrorism is to be successful, there has to be an introspective American review and reappraisal of its policy in the Middle East. For the last one year, the only image that is etched in the popular Muslim mind is that of innocent and unarmed children, women and men being attacked by armed Israeli soldiers backed by tanks, missiles and planes. The Israeli and Indian agendas in Palestine and Kashmir respectively must not be allowed to influence American policy on these issues.

Second, Pakistan faces, difficult, very limited choices. It's almost like a 'damned if you do, and damned if you don't' situation. Not joining the coalition is no longer an option. Pakistan's closest friends: China, Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian Republics, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and even Iran, all are basically on the same side as the Americans on this issue. In a significant gesture, Iran has closed its border with Afghanistan and in the first official contact between Iran and the United States since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Mayor of Tehran sent official condolences to the Mayor of New York.

Pakistan has been, as they say, 'there before' - placing its army and intelligence resources plus territory to promote American agendas: a Cold War ally of the US in the 1950s which allowed a base to spy on the Soviet Union, a frontline state for the Americans in the Cold War's last battle in Afghanistan, and an ally against Iraq in the Gulf War with Pakistani troops fighting with the 28-nation US-led coalition in 1991.

Given this track record, have we asked for a quid pro quo or figured out what's in store for us? Or fathomed the consequences of the decision to 'fulfil all American requests and to assist in whatever is required', as General Colin Powell so approvingly put it on September 15, when he was flanking an appreciative President Bush at Camp David.

Once the 'get Osama Operation' is over, and the last American soldier leaves, who will be there to remove the debris of discontent that this entire situation will bring in its wake for Pakistan and its 140 million people, not counting the 2.2 million Afghans already resident here?

Make no mistake about what Pakistan is getting into. Getting Osama is more symbolism, since by now with all the hype of his being a 'prime suspect', it would make sense for him to have probably escaped either into the Pamir mountains of neighbouring Central Asia or moved stealthily across the porous border into Pakistan.

Washington is seeking nothing short than the destruction of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and its replacement by more 'politically correct' Afghans, and the demolition of the jihad infrastructure in Pakistan, parts of which have had a nexus with the Taleban. This will qualitatively alter the nature of Pakistan's Kashmir policy.

However serious the challenge, this one too provides Pakistan with an opportunity, and it would be a test of the military regime as to how it can translate this opening into providing strategic political and economic space for Pakistan.
Our premise should stem from a 'Pakistan First' policy that above all, preserves, protects and promotes Pakistan's national interest, which can be at variance with that of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

Some pluses for Pakistan in the changed regional and global scenario:
> Prior to September 11, Pakistan, in the eyes of the US, was generally perceived as part of the problem, but now, in a significant turn-around, Pakistan is part of the solution, and a crucial component at that;
> America's South Asia policy which had an 'India Only' accent now has been forced to be more balanced elevating Pakistan to being a 'friendly country', a vital change of status;
> With terrorism as the new obsession, the 'China as enemy' syndrome has been forced to take a back-seat, which is good for Pakistan since China is our best friend & close ally.

What is clear is that the new coalition will not be functional without major Muslim representation. The US badly needs Muslim nations now just as it did during the Gulf War in 1991. Muslim leaders, generally lacking in political spine, need to muster up the courage and the will and vision to look beyond their own political survival so that the much-talked about 'clash of civilisations' does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any case, the Muslim partners in the coalition should first insist on a diplomatic solution before the military option is deemed necessary. More than the Americans, it is the Muslim nations who will feel the initial fallout of any military action against any Muslim country.

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