Pakistan faces a difficult battle on many fronts

On The Border
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The Independent Online

When two airliners smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York one week ago, a weird silence fell on the Line of Control in Kashmir.

For the first time in weeks, there was no firing at all that day, or the next, between the entrenched Indian and Pakistani positions in the long-disputed state. Farmers and soldiers alike said it was uncanny, unprecedented, they couldn't understand it.

One week on, it has become obvious why: Pakistan has had to jerk its attention round 180 degrees, away from the ancient Hindu foe to one which, although Muslim like Pakistan, has been no less problematic down the years.

As General Mahmood Ahmed, the head of Pakistan's military intelligence, returned empty-handed from his meeting with the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, up to 25,000 Taliban fighters, armed with Soviet-era Scud missiles, were massing on Afghanistan's border. The missiles are notoriously inaccurate and erratic but with a range of up to 140 miles they could easily reach the Pakistan capital, Islamabad.

On Saturday, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan told reporters that "if any neighbouring country gave territorial or airspace to the USA against our land, it would draw us into an imposed war ... the Mujahedin would have to enter the territory of such a country". Last night, Pakistan was bracing itself for the first war in its 54-year history against a foe other than India.

It is incorrect to say that Pakistan is not ready for this. Peshawar, the city at the head of the Khyber Pass, is dominated by a huge Raj-era fortress, built as a bulwark against marauding Afghans. The whole of the Pass bristles with military installations and the military cantonment in the city itself sprawls for miles. A Pakistani commentator wrote at the weekend: "Ever since independence, Pakistan has had an Afghan headache." The army has been standing by in such numbers to make sure that the headache never turns into something more life- threatening.

But if it comes, this will be an appallingly difficult war for Pakistan to fight. With India the game has always been clear, the loyalties of the combatants sharply etched, the borders clearly marked, even when disputed. Going into a war against the Taliban, by contrast, means opening several fronts at the same time. And only one of them could be drawn on a map.

The obvious front consists of the rocky hills around the Torkham border-crossing at the foot of the Khyber Pass, and the other passes, easier or more arduous, up and down the 1,400-mile length of the Afghan border, which is porous and impossible to fence. A second, impalpable front consists of the lawless tribal lands in the vicinity of this border, ruled by autonomous Pushtun tribes such as the Affridis, who share much in the way of language and culture with the Taliban, and who have never accepted the authority of the Pakistan state.

In the forbidding canyons of Pakistan's "Wild East", artisans working in primitive workshops turn out thousands of meticulously crafted firearms every year, including copies of Kalashnikov assault rifles, Berretta shotguns and Chinese pistols. Tribes here, as in the Wild West, equate freedom with the right to carry arms, and have fought off attempts by the Pakistan government to strip them of their weapons. Their home terrain is ideal for guerrilla warfare.

These are the conventional enemies that Pakistan must now prepare itself to fight. But far more likely to keep awake at night General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan leader, is the third front about to open up. It exists not in a particular stretch of land but in the hearts and minds of the large and growing number of Pakistanis – nobody knows how many – who can be characterised as Islamic militants.

This invisible, numberless force is Pakistan's real problem, just as it is America's real problem. It is the deep source of the hatred and contempt that was spent so murderously in America one week ago. In attempting to combat it, General Musharraf is up against just as challenging a conundrum as President Bush.

The Taliban will be invading or defending territory, and can be confronted like any conventional enemy. If Pushtuns up and down the border start waging guerrilla war, that, too, can be addressed in ways that are familiar. But the Islamic warriors are everywhere and nowhere at once.

The Islamists of Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the numerous other holy war groups based in Pakistan are not interested in soil as such. Their thoughts, like the thoughts of all the most frightening and formidable enemies, are exclusively on higher things: on doing the will of Allah, of going to Heaven, of doing what is in their power to destroy the power of Satan, on martyrdom. And in the name of these noble goals they are capable of wreaking terrorist mayhem in Pakistan.

Yesterday in Lahore, the newly formed Afghan Defence Council, consisting of 50 jihadi organisations and politicians and generals who share their convictions, met for several hours to discuss their strategy in the current crisis.

They lack mass, active popular support: this is not an Iranian-type revolution in the making. Usually they are divided against each other, and none possesses a charismatic leader to pose a serious challenge to the leaders of the established political parties.

But numbers, as we learnt last Tuesday, are not of the essence. What is essential is righteous conviction and a desire for martyrdom.

This is the enemy in Pakistan's midst, just as it is the enemy in America's midst – only in Islamabad one can see more easily how it came into being. Fifty-four years when this country could have been making itself strong and stable have been thrown away while an obscenely spoilt élite hoarded its privileges and did nothing for the vast mass of the poor.

Pakistan's paltry budget for education, for example, is entirely covered by donations from foreign aid agencies, and is totally inadequate to the task of hauling Pakistan out of illiteracy. As state education atrophies, its place has been taken by the madrassas, the Islamic schools, where children's heads are pumped full of talk about holy war. They are factories of jihad. In the coming days, Pakistan will discover to what extent it has allowed itself to be undermined.

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