South Asia is like the Middle East, except everyone has nuclear weapons

The U.S. wants Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to hunt Osama bin Laden and his allies, but regional geopolitics will make that tricky.

By Anthony York - Max Garrone

Published September 14, 2001 2:06AM (EDT)

As the public cry for a military response to Tuesday's terrorist bombings grew louder Thursday, it was clear that a full-blown diplomatic effort is already underway to enlist other nations to help smoke out those responsible for the attacks and turn them over to the United States. American diplomats, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, have focused on pressuring Pakistan to find terrorists that may be hiding in Afghanistan. Topping that list, of course, is Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan is the linchpin of the current diplomatic push because of its influence with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. According to many experts, the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, played a key role in the training of Taliban rebels during the early 1990s, and has maintained continuous intelligence contacts with the Taliban since the Islamic fundamentalist group took control of the country in 1996.

Thursday, Powell sent a strong message to Pakistani leaders in public as well as through private diplomatic channels. "We thought as we gathered information and as we look at possible sources of the attack it would be useful to point out to the Pakistani leadership at every level that we are looking for (and) expecting their fullest cooperation," Powell said. Pakistan should be considered a U.S. ally, the secretary of state said, but he noted that the relationship between the two nations had been through "its ups and downs."

The United States urged Pakistan to close its border with neighboring Afghanistan, where bin Laden operates, and to cut off funding for terrorist groups. And the Associated Press reported that the U.S. also asked Pakistan for permission to fly over its territory in the event of military action.

In his speech Tuesday, President Bush made clear that governments suspected of harboring and assisting terrorists -- such as Afghanistan and Pakistan -- would be punished for failing to cooperate with efforts to bring those responsible for the U.S. attacks to justice. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," Bush said.

For now, though, the administration is trying to work with Pakistan rather than punish it. Pakistan's military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf spoke to Powell Thursday, and also met with U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin. Powell deputy Richard Armitage has also been sent to Pakistan to meet with Musharraf.

Despite more than a decade of bumpy diplomatic relations -- marked by U.S. sanctions since 1990 -- the Pakistani government pledged its support for the counterterrorism effort in a statement Thursday, which said "Pakistan is committing all of its resources in an effort coordinated with the United States to locate and punish those involved in these horrific acts."

And on Wednesday Musharraf left a meeting with his military and issued a statement that read: "I wish to assure President Bush and the U.S. government of our unstinted cooperation in the fight against terrorism. The world must unite to fight terrorism."

Experts agree that Pakistan is not in much of a position to bargain with American diplomats. "I don't think the discussions happening now are quid pro quo discussions," said Teresita Schaffer, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' South Asia Program, and former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka. In the long run, of course, Pakistan would hope that any cooperation could lessen its international isolation, and hasten an end to sanctions.

Pakistan's support could be crucial to the uphill effort to get Afghanistan's Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Despite Pakistani leaders' claims that they wield little influence over the Taliban, Schaffer says Pakistan was involved with the creation of the extremist Islamic government "very early on. The Taliban probably had their first home base on Pakistani soil." In a report Thursday, CNN cited unnamed sources saying Pakistani officials have had at least one meeting with Taliban leaders urging them to hand over bin Laden to the U.S. following Tuesday's attacks.

Although U.S-Pakistan relations have been strained in recent years, Pakistan has proved a useful ally in the fight against terrorists living in Afghanistan before. In 1998, for example, Pakistani intelligence was widely believed to have helped guide the American military response to the African embassy bombings. Those cruise missile attacks inside Afghanistan led to the destruction of a known training base of bin Laden, and subsequent reports indicated those attacks barely missed bin Laden himself.

Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a member of the U.S. Department of State's policy planning staff from 1985 to 1987, says the U.S. will not only demand that Pakistan use its influence with the Taliban to out bin Laden, but U.S. diplomats will try to deal directly with the Taliban as well.

"The Taliban is very nervous," he said. "We happen to be their major economic supporter. They may hate us, but we give $200-$300 million per year in economic aid, humanitarian aid, so that Afghani citizens can eat."

Cohen says, "We've had direct contact with the Taliban from time to time. Our diplomats come back totally frustrated that the Taliban hasn't budged on this issue," Cohen said. "But the stakes are much higher now. The bar to using force is much lower than it used to be. I know the Pakistanis are telling their Taliban friends this."

The diplomatic overtures to Pakistan Thursday came as U.S. foreign policy in South Asia recently shifted away from Pakistan toward India. This, despite the fact that India often sided with the Soviet Union in the United Nations during the Cold War, at a time when Pakistan's long series of military rulers proved staunch U.S. allies. But the Cold War is long over. The recent shift in U.S. policy toward South Asia seems to be directed at containing China, which many in the administration view as the largest threat in Asia. But that may change now, as U.S. policy refocuses on stopping terrorism, Cohen says.

Schaffer says a rekindled diplomatic relationship with the United States wouldn't immediately result in a renewal of aid to Pakistan. The U.S. imposed sanctions against Pakistan in 1990 when American intelligence sources concluded Pakistan had a nuclear device.

But now that capturing bin Laden and other terrorists has become a priority for the United States, Pakistan may be able to exchange terrorists for international acceptance. "Recouping international respectability is not a trivial thing for the Pakistanis and down the line there are other things that we could work with them on," like foreign aid or working out a deal between them and India over the hotly contested region of Kashmir, Schaffer said.

This could lead to a realignment of U.S. policy in South Asia, and force the United States to get more directly involved in the region. "The Clinton administration and this administration have been very pro-India," Cohen said. "Powell's statements were important because he wants to give Pakistan every chance to do something with the Taliban to help us out. It's like that old song from the '60s, 'Which Side Are You On?' It's time for Pakistan to make that decision. Are they going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?"

Of course, South Asia diplomacy is a delicate balancing act. Pakistan must balance its desire to gain international respectability and avoid military retaliation by the U.S. on the one hand, against growing hostility to America among its citizens and in the region on the other.

"If the government allows Pakistan to be used for attacks on Afghanistan it would be a great treachery," Maulana Samiul Haq, the leader of the Afghan Defense Council, an umbrella group of Pakistan's religious political parties and Islamic militant groups, told the Associated Press. He said the group would urge street protests if Pakistan cooperates with the United States.

"In some respects, Pakistan must choose between the devil and the deep blue sea," Cohen said. Schaffer added that the major issue for Pakistan is "a domestic issue that if they go along with the demand that the U.S. may be making," its leaders may face a confrontation with their own militant groups.

"It's a military government but they've never been willing to confront the militants. If they do confront them then they risk an overt showdown with mobs in the street. If they don't, then the government risks being seen as weak, which means that they risk collapse. The United States fears the militants as well and wants a stable government in Pakistan more than anything, because if this current government falls, Pakistan could become another Afghanistan."

U.S. efforts to target Islamic terrorists will likely be welcomed by Afghanistan's neighbors, Schaffer says. In 1996, as the Taliban rebels took control of Afghanistan, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Khazakstan entered into a security and intelligence alliance aimed at containing the threat of fundamentalists spilling into their countries.

And while Iran and Pakistan -- the other nations bordering Afghanistan -- did not sign the treaty, Martin Rudner, director of the Center for Security and Defense at Ottawa's Carelton University, said those governments are also nervous about the destabilizing possibilities of Islamic revolutionaries crossing their borders. "They're strong regimes but feel a threat to their stability from the fundamentalist contagion that could undermine their grip on power," Rudner says.

Iran already despises the Taliban, according to Rudner, because the Sunni Taliban "brutally persecuted" the minority Shiite community of Herat in southwest Afghanistan and forced a wave of refugees to camp along the border, which the Iranians now view as destabilizing elements. And yet Iran has been loathe to join efforts to isolate the Taliban. The Pakistanis have a similar balancing act. According to Schaffer, Pakistan's government has never directly confronted the militant groups that make its country a base. And any significant action against the Taliban, bin Laden or others would "risk an overt showdown with mobs in the street," she says, recalling "Pakistan sent troops to fight with the Western coalition in the Gulf War and faced pro-Saddam riots in the streets."

So South Asia represents an increasingly pressing challenge for the Bush administration. Cohen says that American military actions against the Taliban "could deteriorate into a serious South Asia crisis very quickly, or they could turn out to lead to a greater accord between India and Pakistan. It's analogous to the Mideast in many ways, but in South Asia all the countries have nuclear weapons."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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