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The Last Stand

Pakistan’s leaders have proven to be very gullible when it comes to dealing with the United States. Way back on September 19, President Pervez Musharraf explained to his countrymen why Pakistan was turning against the Taliban and supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Wouldn‘t you know, his reasons touched on the conflict now engrossing Pakistan -- the debate over the independence of Kashmir. “Had we not supported the international community in its war on the Taliban, we would have lost initiatives in Kashmir policy and risked our nuclear assets,” Musharraf said almost four months ago.

In the days after that televised speech, Pakistani functionaries often boasted in private conversation that their Western friend would help resolve their No. 1 problem with India. “The U.S. has assured us that they will help us to resolve the Kashmir problem,” they would say. “First, let the dust settle in Afghanistan.”

But today there is no talk of the United States taking Pakistan’s side against India in the fight for Kashmir. In fact, before the dust has settled in Afghanistan, the international community is placing Pakistan under intense diplomatic pressure to withdraw its support from the Muslim radicals who seek to free the Indian part of Kashmir. The renewed pressure intensified, of course, with the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, which has been blamed on Pakistani extremists.

A brief history: When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the Asian subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-dominated India and the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan. Kashmir was divided between Pakistan and India, and the two countries have fought two full-scale wars -- one in 1948, the other in 1965 -- over both sides ambition to assume full control. A Muslim insurgency movement has left more than 60,000 people dead since 1989; India blames Pakistan for the upheaval.

The Pakistanis argue that Kashmir should have become part of Pakistan in 1947 because most of its population is Muslim. Indians says that Kashmir has always belonged to them. Kashmiris, by and large, are divided over which country they would like to be part of, though most seem to prefer yet a third option: forming a united, independent Kashmir, with the United Nations overseeing the government for 15 years.

India has blamed Pakistan-based Muslim extremist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad for the December 13 attack, and accused Pakistani military intelligence of masterminding it. India demanded Pakistan hand over the men responsible for the attack. Since then, both countries have deployed forces along the border.

Many political observers in Pakistan see India‘s posture as rude intimidation tactics. “Certainly India is not acting on its own,” commented one of them. “Western powers are behind this military build up to pressure Pakistan for full compliance in the war on terrorism. They want to neutralize the pro-Jihad mindset of the state of Pakistan.”

Many observers also see the sentiment against Muslim radicals as a mandate for Pakistan to rein in such radicalism in Kashmir and turn Pakistan into a secular, liberal state. Pakistan’s ruling elite and powerful military -- which sees Pakistan as a vanguard of Muslim awakening -- abhors such demands and has been resisting secularization since the inception of Pakistan, half a century ago. “Jihad is the single largest export of Pakistan,” one political commentator observed.

Some political analysts argue that India, in its demands that Pakistan stop supporting fundamentalists engaged in the uprising in Indian Kashmir and hand over those whom India suspects of terrorist acts, is just imitating the U.S. action after September 11. “India is blatantly trying to get political advantage out of the current anti-terrorist climate,” said one analyst.

Islamabad has demanded evidence from India before it will act on the list of 20 people New Delhi has demanded be handed over as “terrorists.‘’ India has so far refused to produce any such evidence. ”If India thinks that they are in a similar situation to that of the U.S. because of the terror attacks, they are wrong,“ one Pakistani official said bitterly. ”The U.S., unlike India, is not an occupying force in Afghanistan.“

If Musharraf goes along with the demands of India and the international community to contain fundamentalist forces, what effect will it have on his government? As one observer noted, a sizeable section of the Taliban forces simply came back home to Pakistan. Some of them are undoubtedly demoralized and just happy to be alive, but others are angered by Islamabad‘s ”betrayal“ of their cause and are eager to link up with the armed fundamentalist groups already in the country. A senior police official in Karachi admitted, ”We know that arresting 300 to 400 people is like a drop in the ocean. These groups have plenty of hideouts, including the 15,000-plus religious seminaries.“

So the debate returns to the same point that we have been discussing since September 11, when Pakistan began to retreat from its support of fundamentalism. What if fundamentalists get a real chance to seize power in Pakistan? Certainly Musharraf cannot change the hearts and minds of his powerful military, or of the sea of fundamentalists who armed to the teeth in solidarity with Pakistan’s obsession with holy war against its neighbors. As one right-wing activist put it, ”Pakistan‘s military could swallow the bitter pill of retreat from Afghanistan, but not from Kashmir, where it has invested half a century.“