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Pakistan's Anxiety Grows as Taliban Collapse

Pakistan's Anxiety Grows as Taliban Collapse

Author: John F. Burns
Publication: The New York Times
Date: November 25, 2001

Islamabad, Pakistan, Nov. 24 - A senior Pakistani official watched in dismay today as the television in his office showed Taliban fighters, streaming out of Kunduz, Afghanistan, to surrender to the Northern Alliance.

"I am sorry to put it in this way," he said, switching off the set, "but Rumsfeld's been extremely callous."

For two weeks, Pakistan has been mesmerized by the situation at Kunduz. There were reports that as many as 1,500 Pakistanis were with the Taliban garrison at Kunduz, and that extremists in the Taliban were threatening to execute any who tried to surrender. People across Pakistan feared a blood bath that would reverberate in every mosque in this nation of 140 million Muslims.

Pakistan's worst fears appear to have receded with the news tonight that many of the fighters surrendering were Pakistanis. Now, the concern will shift to the safety of prisoners in the hands of the alliance, which Pakistan has never trusted.

Still, few here seem likely to forget that when Pakistan appealed for American intervention to work out an arrangement in Kunduz, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld responded, in effect, that the Pakistanis would face the choice of all defeated soldiers in war, surrender or death.

The Kunduz drama has captured the frustration and anger of many Pakistani officials who entrusted their interests in Afghanistan to the United States after Sept. 11, when the Bush administration demanded that Pakistan join in the war against terrorism.

The corollary, as stated and repeated by President Pervez Musharraf, was that Washington would see to it that all of Pakistan's essential interests in Afghanistan were protected.

From the American perspective, the war has gone a long way toward achieving its objectives, with the Taliban driven from power in all but one city, Kandahar, and Al Qaeda terrorists on the run. But from the Pakistani perspective, things have gone badly wrong, and the Americans have not delivered.

Only 10 weeks after General Musharraf pledged his "full support" to the United States, enraging Islamic militants in Pakistan and Islamic hard-liners in the army, the sense that the United States has failed to keep its side of the deal is rife, from the bazaars of cities to the offices where senior aides to General Musharraf ponder how to extricate Pakistan from the problems the war has caused.

Pakistan's gains have been substantial, especially financially, with the removal of American economic sanctions and the giving of fresh aid and help in debt payments. But strategically, the war has been a disaster in the minds of most Pakistanis.

Two weeks ago, when President Bush and General Musharraf met in New York, Mr. Bush pressed the Northern Alliance not to capture Kabul. But when the general returned home days later, he arrived just in time to see alliance troops pouring into the Afghan capital.

Northern Alliance leaders are contemptuous of Pakistan for supporting the Taliban before the Sept. 11 attacks. Another division is that the alliance draws its support, including its arms and much of its financing, from three countries regarded as potentially hostile to Pakistan: India, Russia and Iran.

Next Tuesday, the United Nations will convene a conference in Germany at which Northern Alliance leaders will sit down with opposition leaders from the Pashtun tribal group that dominates southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have low hopes for that meeting, believing that alliance leaders will begin a process of endless negotiation that will leave the alliance as the de facto government in Kabul.

Ever since Pakistan came into being in 1947, a primary goal has been to ensure that it keeps a friendly government to the west, in Afghanistan, since it already faced the unfriendly state of India, to the east. With the alliance in Kabul, the risk of having unfriendly governments on either side look real.

With the German meeting coming up, General Musharraf has said little about the situation, other than repeating his "expectation" that the talks will begin the process of establishing a provisional government with strong Pashtun representation that would be friendly to Pakistan. But privately, Pakistani officials say, the general is deeply skeptical that alliance leaders will keep their promise, especially to cede military control of Kabul to a force comprising Pashtun units.

General Musharraf has bitten his tongue, hoping that the Bonn meeting will prove his worst fears wrong, Pakistani officials suggest. He does so knowing that his own standing in Pakistan would be seriously undermined if he were to say that the United States has broken a promise to him.

"But the fact that he's not saying anything right now does not mean that he's calm," one official said. "Privately, he's telling people that if the alliance hold on Kabul is not broken, his position could become untenable."

President Musharraf took a considerable risk supporting the Americans, letting them use Pakistan's airspace, providing them with intelligence and leasing several airfields for use by American spacial operations troops.

President Bush's emissary to the rival Afghan political groups, James F. Dobbins, met with alliance leaders this week and later said he had told them that the West would withhold billions of dollars in reconstruction aid for Afghanistan until a "broad- based government" was set up. "It's a big carrot," he said.

But many Pakistanis with experience of dealing with Afghanistan have concluded that American policy is naïve, or else cynical. Those holding the latter view contend that the Bush administration sees itself within reach of accomplishing its goals in Afghanistan and cares little about accomplishing Pakistan's.

In this view, the United States will accept a Northern Alliance government in Kabul if it has to, because the only means of removing it would be to go to war with the alliance. But if the alliance is left in control of Kabul and other cities, these Pakistanis say, the United States will have set the stage for a new civil war.

"If Sept. 11 was a tragedy, there is a bigger tragedy ahead,", said Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who was director- general of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops in Afghanistan gave way to a civil war and who is regarded in Pakistan as having strong sympathies for Islamic militants.

Even among aides to General Musharraf, there are officials who agree, and one senior policy maker said Washington could witness a devil's choice of a new civil war against Pashtuns or taking back the capital from the alliance.

"If the Americans are not very careful with that ambitious little lot, they will find themselves in an unholy mess," he said. "Right now, peace in Afghanistan hangs by a thread."

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