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Edging Toward War 

Dealing with nuclear fears and rumors of 20 U.S. troops being held hostage

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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PAKISTAN'S NEXT WAR APPEARS INEVITABLE. AND IT'S UNCLEAR HOW MUCH LONGER PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf, who changes key positions almost daily, will be able to keep his tenuous hold on the country.

On our eastern front, the military is embroiled in the sixth month of its standoff with India. We have fought three wars with India, and lost half of our territory, and the next war could well be a nuclear one. When Musharraf appeared on Pakistani TV this week, he backtracked to his hard-line, pre-9/11 thinking. He made no mention of India's contention that Pakistan is harboring terrorists and aiding extremist groups. Instead, he vowed to fight a war and offered no olive branch to India.

It looks to me like Musharraf has been overpowered by zealous generals and has given up the moderate views he espoused in his January 12 address, when he promised to crack down on fundamentalists.

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Last September, Musharraf, when he announced his decision to go along with the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban and al Qaeda, said that in return he had gained U.S. support on Kashmir issue. But that now seems to be folly. Extremist groups argue that despite Musharraf's claims about Kashmir, the U.S. is more inclined toward India than Pakistan. "The latest Indian moves toward a military encounter with Pakistan could not have happened without the tacit approval of the U.S.," said Shireen Mazari, of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pakistan, in an interview with an Indian magazine.

The dominant fear in the streets is that India could target Pakistan's nuclear installations through deadly air strikes and that it would suit the U.S., which has been apprehensive about Pakistani nukes falling into the hands of jehadis.

We face another grave risk on our western front, where U.S.-backed forces continue their hunt for al Qaeda troops believed to have found safe haven in Pakistan's unruly tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The aggressive campaign waged by the U.S. team has led to an intriguing report that some 20 American military forces have been taken hostage by Taliban militants. The rumor, which began showing up in the pro-Taliban press a month or so ago, now is rampant in the mainstream press and throughout Pakistan. The reports, citing anonymous Taliban and intelligence sources, claim that the troops were seized in March in the Shahi Kot area, in the province of Paktia that borders Pakistan's tribal belt. They say that U.S. forces are scouring the area to get them released. The coalition side has said nothing in Pakistan to verify or deny the report.

(U.S. Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, in a phone interview from Arlington, Virginia, said the rumors are false. "We have heard numerous stories about American servicemen being killed or captured in Pakistan. We have never been able to track where they come from.")

I must say, despite the official denials, that I'm not sure what to think about the reports. If they are false, they show the depths of irrational thinking and rampant distrust of the United States now gripping Pakistan. "Compounding the problem is Musharraf's relationship with the Americans," one intelligence source confided. He insisted the U.S. and Pakistan have no common ground. "They first came into the neighborhood, then were granted bases in Pakistan and are now conducting investigations with Pakistani officials into high-profile acts of terrorism and are raiding seminaries in tribal areas. This is worrisome for many."

The ultraconservative and heavily armed residents of Pakistan's tribal area, where even Pakistani government officials are unwelcome, have vowed to aim their guns at any American they see. Musharraf, according to some reports, has been pressured by his generals to ask the U.S.-led forces to delay or at least tone down their operation. To no avail, of course.

"But how long could he resist U.S. pressure for a free hand?" one politician commented. "Americans are here to complete their agenda one way or other, and Musharraf knows it better than any one else that his reluctance could risk his job. The USA is very capable of finding another general to complete the job. Therefore, the sooner the job is complete the better."

IN FACT, THE AMERICAN PRESENCE IN PAKISTAN is hard to miss. At Pakistani airports, U.S. government agents regularly check records of all incoming and outgoing passengers, monitor telephones with highly sensitive devices and use airfields for military logistic purposes, keeping locals away. All of this, of course, with official approval of the Pakistani government.

"No more a sovereign nation -- Pakistan" is how one Pakistani newsmagazine described the largely unwelcome presence and influence of the U.S. on Pakistani soil.

And "Our New Neighbor -- USA" is how India's premier newsmagazine Outlook titled its Web discussion on U.S. involvement in the region this week.

Pakistan intelligence agencies believe that the May 8 bombing in Karachi that killed 14 people was carried out by the same group that kidnapped and executed Daniel Pearl and attacked a church in Islamabad in March.

The crack in Pakistan's leadership is obvious in the Daniel Pearl case, which still has yet to be fully investigated. Fazal Karim, a member of the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who led police to the remains of Pearl, has not been officially declared under police custody. Investigative agencies believe that an official confirmation about the discovery of the Pearl's body will derail the ongoing trial against Sheikh Omar and 10 others.

According to police sources, the description of Pearl's kidnapping and killing is entirely different from the one investigative agencies have offered.

Police sources in police say that Fazal Karim also revealed that major Pakistani cities may soon witness more suicidal attacks against the Westerners and key government personalities.

Christine Pelisek contributed to this report.

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