The day after Pakistan’s interior minister denounced the Taliban and religious extremism, his brother was shot dead in downtown Karachi. The minister, Moinuddin Haider, speaking at a seminar titled “Terrorism: A New Challenge to the World of Islam,” said the Taliban’s “narrow concept of Islam was both misguided and misguiding. We would never let some hymn-reciting, illiterate religious bigots run this country.”

The following day, his brother, Ehteshanuddin Haider, patron of the Fatmid Foundation, a well-known charity in Pakistan, was killed as he left his office. The message seemed clear in tumultuous Pakistan: Taliban fighters, in retreat from Afghanistan, are bucking to show their presence in my country.

At his elder brother’s funeral, Moinuddin Haider was asked if he saw any connection between his own remarks and his brother’s death. He politely replied, “I am still of the belief that we should not let some illiterate zealots run the country.”

It is clear that Pakistan, a country that came into being in the name of Islam, is passing through the most dangerous times of its half-century existence.

On its eastern border, tension is building with old foe India after a December 13 terrorist attack — by Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatists — on the Indian Parliament, an attack that killed 14 people. On its western border, an unwelcoming Kabul government blames Pakistan for three decades of strife. Internally, Pakistan bears the wrath of Muslim radicals upset that President Pervez Musharraf sided with the U.S.-led coalition and could be making a compromise with India on the Kashmir issue.

On top of all this, the possibility that Osama bin Laden has found refuge in Pakistan adds to the quandary. Speculation about bin Laden’s whereabouts, running high for weeks, grew most intense last week when a spokesman for Afghan’s defense ministry, Mohammed Habeel, accused a pro-Taliban religious leader, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, of giving protection to the world’s most wanted man. “Attack is permissible on any country — be it Pakistan or any other — that gives protection to Osama. We support that type of attack,’’ Habeel said.

The Pakistani press contacted Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who has been detained in his hometown of Dera Ismail Khan for the past three months on sedition charges. He dismissed the allegation as a political gimmick. One of his aides said, “Though we do support the Taliban, we never had any connection with Osama bin Laden. This is part of an international scheme to pressure the Musharraf government to come down hard on religious parties, akin to the [actions of the] secular states of Egypt and Algeria, thus throwing Pakistan into the flames of civil war.”

Rahman heads Pakistan’s largest religious party — Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the party of Muslim scholars that has been an ally of the Taliban. It has a large presence in Pakistan’s western border areas, and in the initial days of the war on the Taliban, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam organized one of the largest anti-government, pro-Taliban violent rallies in Pakistan. It was because of these demonstrations that General Musharraf’s fragile government decided to charge Fazlur Rahman with sedition, on grounds that he tried to incite the armed forces to overthrow the general’s pro-West government.

I spoke with one of my military sources about the Afghan defense-
ministry spokesman’s support of an attack on Pakistan if it is harboring bin Laden. “Kabul is playing into the hands of India,” he told me. “In times when we are facing warlike situations on our eastern border, Northern Alliance people want to settle the score with Pakistan. They hope Pakistan will meet a fate akin to that of the Taliban.”

Independent political observers do not rule out that bin Laden may have been aided by a pro-Taliban faction of one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. “It is no secret that Pakistan’s ruling clique is divided on the issue of the Taliban and Osama,” said Riaz Chandio, a political activist. “Therefore it is likely that while President Musharraf is helping the U.S. to capture Osama and members of the Taliban leadership, one or another head of numerous intelligence agencies is helping Osama to avoid meeting that fate.”

In late October, Osama apparently got advance warning less than three hours before the missile bombardment of Beni Hissar camp, a hideout near Kabul. It’s anyone’s guess who may have tipped him off, but some believe Pakistani sources saved him.

It is not a new phenomenon for Pakistan that the government of the day follows one policy and the intelligence agencies go the opposite way. “He may be in a safe house under the protection of one intelligence ally, watching soldiers of fortune as they hunt him in the rugged Afghan mountains,” Chandio said.

A political commentator speaks for most Pakistanis when he says that now is the time to close once and for all this chapter of Muslim radicalism and Osama-brand terror. “Though he may be dead under the debris of a cave or running endlessly for his life, he opened a wide chasm between them and us. It will be in the interests of all of us to close this chapter, better sooner than later.”

It is troubling that the game on the global chessboard does not follow rules driven by morality. We may be witnessing more turmoil in coming times. One Osama may be replaced by another, and the terror may continue.

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