Pakistan on the Brink

"When the civil war begins, it will begin here," said my self-appointed tour guide, a drunken Frenchman with a flare for the dramatic. He made a sweeping gesture with one hand as the other gripped the steering wheel of the tiny car we occupied, driving down the main drag of Peshawar, Pakistan, an ancient trading post near the Afghan border. The Frenchman, after a night of revelry at the American Club -- the one place in town where alcohol was available to the sizable community of Western do-gooders and operatives -- had offered to give me a lift back to the guesthouse where I was staying.

It was May of 1998, and at the edges of the dusty town, refugee camps teemed with tens of thousands of Afghans who had fled either the Taliban or the war that preceded the Taliban's march into Kabul, the Afghan capital. Peshawar was, at around that time, home to Shiekh Osama bin Laden, who had just issued a de facto fatwa on the heads of Americans, declaring it the duty of Muslims to kill Americans and their allies. (Bin Laden's call for death to Americans can't be considered a legitimate fatwa since he is not an imam or a mullah.)

While the September 11 attacks on New York were still several years away, their precursors were in the near offing; three months later, on August 7, 1998, bin Laden associates would bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 257, and prompting President Bill Clinton to retaliate with air strikes on an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

When I visited Peshawar, the Pakistani press was full of invective against then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government was allegedly corrupt, and whose authoritarian manner did little to dispel such accusations. Only weeks after my departure, Sharif responded to India's test of a nuclear bomb with one of his own, and the long-rumored "Islamic bomb" was revealed to be a reality. Within a year, Sharif would be deposed in a bloodless coup d'etat by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, chief of the Pakistani army, who still clings tentatively to power. That he yesterday prevented his old rival, Sharif, from returning to Pakistan speaks to Musharraf's dwindling popular support.

Musharraf's hold on power has been by turns both enabled and weakened by the Bush administration, which in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has seen the general as a means for maintaining stability in a volatile, nuclear-capable country, even as it finds itself frustrated by Musharraf's apparent capitulation to al Qaeda and Taliban allies in the tribal regions of the North West Frontier Province (of which Peshawar is the provincial capital).

While U.S. politicians portray the general as feckless in his dealings with the elders of the pro-Taliban Pashtun tribes who control this lawless region, it is no small feat that he has managed to avoid, under such circumstances, the civil war predicted by the Frenchman. What Americans fail to understand is the arbitrary nature of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, particularly in the northern areas.

Pakistan is a country that was created, quite hastily, from whole cloth in 1947. The Pashtuns who reside on the Pakistani side of the line have done so for centuries, just as their tribesmen have done on the Afghan side of the line. To expect a Pakistani ruler to exert U.S. will on these well-armed tribes is to invite a revolution.

Under U.S. pressure, Musharraf launched an air strike last October on a religious school in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) village of Chengai, which was named as a base for extremists by U.S. intelligence agencies. Some 80 people were killed, including many women and children, according to observers on the ground. Local witnesses also claimed that the air strikes were carried out by U.S. drones, not Pakistani military aircraft. In January, a strike was launched on a compound of adobe huts in the NWFP area of Waziristan, prompting some 1,500 tribesmen to take to the street to denounce Musharraf.

The U.S. government has pressured Musharraf to act as a strongman against his country's indigenous, pro-Taliban people, while at the same time it has also pressured him to look as if he supports a return to democracy, urging him to schedule elections and not to declare a state of emergency. To that end, Musharraf allowed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of Pakistan's supreme court to return to the bench after lawyers across the nation rioted when Musharraf suspended Chaudhry, allegedly because he posed a threat to Musharraf's plan to stay in power as both army chief and president.

Chaudry had barely returned to the bench when his court decided to allow Sharif to return to Pakistan from his forced exile in London and Saudi Arabia. Yesterday's deportation of Sharif may force one constitutional crisis too many on the beleaguered neo-democracy that is Pakistan.

On Friday, the country's other living (and also allegedly corrupt) former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is scheduled to announce a date in October when she will return to Pakistan now that she and Musharraf have reportedly reached a power-sharing deal, at the prompting of U.S. officials. With the deportation of the troublesome Sharif, it's hard to see how the people of Pakistan will accept as legitimate this U.S.-cooked joint rule of their country.

On the same day that Musharraf deported Sharif, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quoted in GQ telling writer Lisa DePaulo that the war in Afghanistan -- launched in retaliation for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 -- was "a great success." With Afghanistan's nuclear neighbor teetering on the brink of anarchy, and the resurgence of Afghanistan's Taliban with the help of their tribesmen in Pakistan, one has to wonder what Rummy's putting his tea these days. On the sixth anniversary of that dreadful day, America has done little to address the root causes of Islamist terrorism -- in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or anywhere else -- and instead invites the scorn of the world.

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