by Muddassir Rizvi
(IPS) ISLAMABAD --
military government, fearing a backlash from right-wing religious parties and the public in general, is hesitating over the extent of cooperation it will give Washington in tracking down those responsible for the attacks in the U.S. this week.
The government today received a list of measures the United States wanted from Islamabad, prompting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to summon his top commanders to a meeting.
A Pakistani official who did not want to be named said the measures included the closure of the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, provision of information on Osama bin Laden, permission for U.S. war planes to enter Pakistani airspace in case it decides to launch airstrikes, and a freeze on fuel supplies to Afghanistan's Taliban government.
Official sources say Musharraf and his commanders discussed a contingency plan to deal with public reaction at home while it tried to formulate its own response to Washington's requests.
Even before these requests were laid out, a consensus was building among religious leaders here that Pakistan should not allow the use of its soil or airspace for any actions against Afghanistan, which has been sheltering bin Laden, a suspect in the Sep. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
"On the basis of my contacts with the Taliban, I am sure that neither the Taliban government nor Osama bin Laden was involved in these terrorist attacks," declared influential right-wing leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads the Jamiat Ulema Islam.
"People in Pakistan will not allow the use of Pakistani soil against Afghanistan. I hope the military leadership will respect the expectations of the people," warned the maulana, who enjoys close ties with the Taliban militia.
A statement from the Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said the Taliban had no intention of extraditing bin Laden. "Blaming Osama without rhyme or reason is a separate thing and is a move by Western intelligence agencies to escape their own failure," it said.
Another leader affiliated with one faction of the Jamiat Ulema Islam, Samiul Haq, said: "The expected U.S. attack on Afghanistan will be considered an attack against the sovereignty of Pakistan and conspiracy against the defense and nuclear capability of the country."
The U.S. leadership, he added, appears to be in a hurry to link the Taliban and bin Laden to terrorist attacks even in the absence of substantive evidence.
"Without producing proof, an attack on Afghanistan will reflect nothing but the hatred of the U.S. government towards the Islamic world. We will not allow them to use Pakistani soil," said Haq, who runs a chain of religious schools across Pakistan.
Musharraf had earlier assured the Bush administration of his government's full cooperation as Washington weighed its response to the terrorist attacks, but he has not given any indication of what "full cooperation" might entail.
"Until the areas of cooperation are defined, we cannot talk about allowing U.S. troops to use Pakistani soil," said Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's press secretary, while denouncing terrorism and expressing support for international action against it.
Pakistanis are saddened by the loss of lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, some find U.S. claims of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks "ridiculous."
They say that the Taliban government is an easy scapegoat for a government struggling to save face in the aftermath of a massive intelligence failure that permitted the deadly attacks in highly secured American cities.
"How could Osama, stranded in the middle of nowhere, plan such sophisticated, well-planned terrorism? It is rather ridiculous that Osama is blamed for anything that goes out of America's control," asked Nasim Javed, a local businessmen.
"It appears that the U.S. is trying to find an excuse to send in forces to Afghanistan and in the process force Pakistan to allow the use of its territory for the purpose. Pakistani people won't allow that," he said.
The military leadership realizes the delicacy of the situation and is trying to keep a balance between the expectations of the people and those of the United States.
It understands that siding with the United States in any action against Afghanistan may subject it to public wrath. On the other hand, non-cooperation with Washington could result in stricter economic sanctions, and could even land Pakistan on the list of countries that harbor terrorists, observers say.
According to a report published in the Islamabad English-language daily The News on Friday, the generals are trying to respect religious sensitivities at home and also honor commitments of cooperation to the United States.
"It may not be possible for the military government to allow foreign forces to land in Pakistan and allow them to use the Pakistani territory as a staging ground for a military action. In no case can the military government afford to give an impression to the Afghanistan government that it actually aided the Americans or another international military strike against Afghanistan," said the press report, quoting military sources.
The government's caution is understandable in view of the general public's mood and the overriding anti-American sentiment in the country, which has its roots in what people here call "biased American policies towards the Muslim world."
"We would like to urge world leaders and opinion makers to take time to reflect, rather than resorting to harsh responses, or arriving without proper investigations to conclusions as to where the responsibility lies," says Hina Jilani of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a press statement.
Dubbed by the right-wing Islamic parties as a pawn in the hands of the Western world, the HRCP has also called for a just international order rather than impulsive military responses. "It is important now to devise an international order that can ensure justice and equality for all people," Jilani said.
Among ordinary Pakistanis, the anti-American rhetoric is quite strong, and efforts to pin the blame for the attacks on Islamist groups has galvanized this sentiment.
"Why were these attacks not conducted in Denmark, France or any other country? Why is the United States or its installations always targeted? The U.S. government may want to see what's wrong with its policies and why it attracts hatred around the world," said Mohammad Abbas, a government employee.
"Our government should tell Bush to change his policies towards the world, rather then trying to police everybody the American way," he said.
September 17, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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