Even Pakistan's liberals were provoked by Bush

By Phil Reeves
Friday 14 March 2003 01:00
comments

Kamran Shafi is truly cosmopolitan. A former army major, he has worked as a businessman in Japan and as a diplomat in London, where he met – and liked – Tony Blair.

One soon establishes over tea in his villa in Islamabad – with a British-made 1959 Morris Minor in the drive – that he is worldly, secular and liberal-minded.

Yet a few days ago Mr Shafi, 57, was marching alongside Pakistan's most militant mullahs in Rawalpindi. He was among 200,000 Pakistanis at an anti-war demonstration organised by the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) an Islamist religious bloc dominated by people with virulently anti-Western and pro-Taliban views.

The gap between Mr Shafi and Pakistan's religious hardliners could hardly be greater. He "cannot stand" them. He has excoriated them in print for luring thousands of impoverished Pakistani youths into fighting a "jihad" against America in Afghanistan. Many died or are in prison.

He believes America is "perfectly right to sort out al-Qa'ida in whatever way it has to". He has good grounds: his 30-year-old son, a merchant banker, was in a building next to the World Trade Centre when the twin towers collapsed. Six agonising hours elapsed before he knew his son was safe. Yet he marched because he deplores "mad American arrogance" and fears for the impact war will have on civilians, and on the innocent soldiery of both sides. "I was marching for peace, that's all."

The people of Pakistan are overwhelmingly against war. The Friday Times newspaper declared this week that anti-Americanism had reached unprecedented levels.

Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, is fighting for his political survival. The Americans are pressing him to defy his people and provide one of the nine UN Security Council "yes" votes Messrs Bush and Blair seek to pave the way for the assault on Iraq.

If Pakistan declines, it fears the loss of desperately-needed economic support. Since it agreed to co-operate with America in the hunt for al- Qa'ida after 11 September, Islamabad has received more than $1bn in aid, plus soft loans from the IMF and World Bank and the rescheduling of $12bn (£7.5bn) international debt.

But acquiescence also carries a high price. It would directly play into the hands of the religious parties, who are bitterly opposed to the Musharraf government. They have been going from strength to strength since their triumph in last October's elections, where the MMA became the third largest parliamentary party. The forces that nurture the fanatical anti-Americanism that led to 11 September would be likely to grow stronger still.

Despite this, both President Bush and Mr Blair hope that General Musharraf will hand them his vote and that the war will be swift and victorious, and followed by economic rewards, which will help to cool the anger of Pakistan's public. But that is a very large gamble.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments