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The Pakistan Maelstrom

For the last three weeks Pakistan’s military rulers have been trying to convince the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and avoid the catastrophe being prepared. They failed.

Since Osama is the son-in-law of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, this was hardly surprising. The more interesting question is whether Pakistan, after withdrawing its own soldiers, officers and pilots from Afghanistan, has managed to split the Taliban and withdraw some of those totally dependent on its patronage. This would be a key aim of the military regime to maintain its influence in a future coalition government in Kabul.

Relations between Pakistan and the Taliban leadership have been tense this year. Last year, in an effort to cement Pak-Afghan friendship, Pakistan dispatched a football team to play a friendly against Afghanistan. As the two teams faced each other in the stadium at Kabul with the referee about to blow the opening whistle, bearded security forces entered and announced that the Pakistani footballers were indecently attired. They were wearing normal football shorts, whereas the Afghans were dressed in surreal long shorts which came down well below the knees. Perhaps it was felt that the rippling thighs of the Pakistanis might cause upheavals in the all-male audience. Who knows? The Pakistani players were arrested, their heads were shaved and they were all flogged in public while the stadium audience was forced to chant verses from the Koran. This was Mullah Omar’s friendly warning shot to the Pakistani military to assert the independence of his leadership and his loyalty to Bin Laden.

The bombing of Kabul and Kandahar by the United States and its ever-loyal British ally will not have seriously affected the fighting strength of the Taliban. The combined force – including Bin Laden’s special brigade of Arabs – is now reported to consist of 30-40,000 hardened veterans. Nonetheless the Taliban are effectively encircled and isolated. Their defeat is inevitable. Both Pakistan and Iran are ranged against them on two important borders. It is unlikely they will last more than a few weeks. Obviously some of their forces will go to the mountains and wait till the west withdraws before attacking the new regime, likely to be installed in Kabul when the octogenarian King Zahir Shah is moved from his comfortable Roman villa to less salubrious surroundings in the wreckage of Kabul.

The Northern Alliance backed by the west is marginally less religious than the Taliban, but its record on everything else is just as abysmal. Over the last year they have taken over the marketing of heroin on a large scale, making a mockery of Blair’s claim that this war is also a war against drugs.

The notion that they would represent an advance on the Taliban is laughable. Their first instinct will be revenge against their opponents. However the Alliance has been weakened in recent days by the defection of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once the favourite “freedom-fighter” of the west, welcomed in the White House and Downing Street by Reagan and Thatcher.

This man has now decided to back the Taliban against the infidel. Sustaining a new client state in Afghanistan will not be an easy affair given local and regional rivalries. General Musharraf has already told Pakistanis he will not accept a regime dominated by the Northern Alliance. This is hardly surprising since his army has been fighting the Alliance for over a decade.

Till now the Pakistan army (unlike its Arab counterparts) has avoided a coup mounted by captains and colonels. It has always been the generals who have seized power and kept the army united, largely by sharing out the pieces of silver.

It is an open question whether that will be enough on this occasion. A lot will depend on the aftermath of the current war. A major concern for the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis is that the Taliban, cornered and defeated in their own country, will turn on Pakistan and wreak havoc on its cities and social fabric. Peshawar, Quetta, Lahore and Karachi are especially vulnerable. By that time the west, having scored a “victory”, will turn a blind eye to the mess left behind.

As for the supposed aim of this operation – the capture of Bin Laden – this is unlikely to be easy. He is well-protected in the remote Pamir mountains and might well disappear. But victory will still be proclaimed. The west will rely on the short memory of its citizens. But let us even suppose that Bin Laden is captured and killed. How will this help the “war against terrorism”? Other individuals will decide to mimic the events of September 11 in different ways.

More importantly, the focus will shift to the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia fierce factional struggle within the royal family is in progress. Saudiologists have long recognised that Crown Prince Abdullah is close to the Wahhabi clerics. But he will still face a bitterly angry population–as will Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The prospect of eruptions in these two countries is growing and the consequences of the Anglo-American war in Afghanistan are likely to be incendiary. CP

Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman.

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Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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