KARACHI, Pakistan — On September 13, one day before Pakistan decided to support the United States in the war on terror, Islamabad airport was sealed off. No one knew exactly why. Some of my colleagues in the press thought Pakistan had prematurely allowed U.S. forces to land in Islamabad en route to Afghanistan.

On the following day, the Core Commanders‘ Conference — Pakistan’s highest decision-making body — extended “unstinting” support to the U.S. Later, one government official said the airport had been closed because of threats made against the country‘s “strategic assets” but would not elaborate. A few inquiring reporters later found out that the country’s command center was alarmed by an intelligence report that India and Israel, upset by Pakistan‘s indecisiveness in siding with the U.S., planned to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Islamabad airport is half an hour‘s ride from Kahuta Nuclear Power Plant. Given the high degree of secrecy in Pakistan, nothing has been officially confirmed or denied.

India, by the way, gave the U.S. unqualified support within hours of the September 11 attacks; Pakistan took three days. Pakistan’s ruling junta realized it could not afford the luxury of neutrality, given the stresses of emerging global rearrangements. But this wise choice altered the entire configuration of Pakistan‘s ruling elite overnight. The country that had been calling the Muslim extremists’ militant struggle a jihad — a holy war — decided to denounce it as terrorism. Pakistan allied herself with a global community that is bent on crushing it, therefore inviting the wrath of opponents in the ruling clique and the military.

“The choice is up to you,” Colin Powell‘s right-hand man, Richard Armitage, is said to have told Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, who has since been replaced as chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, during a September 11 visit to Pakistan‘s embassy in Washington. “Help us and breathe in the 21st century along with the international community or be prepared to live in the Stone Age.” President Pervez Musharraf repeated this message to his fellow countrymen who came to listen to his entreaty after his decision to support the U.S. in its war on Taliban obscurantism and the megalomaniac Osama.

The choice has created great discord in my country and could bring us to the brink of civil war. Pakistan is a country that came into being in the name of religion; a its military has been the self-appointed custodian of faith. Since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, Pakistan and India have been virtually on a war footing. After three full-scale wars, Pakistan is now half the country it used to be.

I lost a bet with a fellow journalist over whether Pakistan would side with the U.S. in the war on terrorism. I insisted, “Pakistan will never ever support the U.S. to crush fundamentalism. It will call into question the very foundation of the state of Pakistan that rests upon one-Muslim-nation ideology and that openly supports Muslim militancy in Indian-held Kashmir in the name of Muslim fraternity.” And my fellow had a point to make: “Pakistan’s rulers will make money out of the emerging situation as they made a fortune from the last Afghan war.”

Pakistan was facing an acute financial crisis before Black Tuesday. As quid pro quo for supporting the U.S., Pakistan begged for help in alleviating its long list of monetary predicaments. Now the sanctions on Pakistan have been waived by the U.S. Congress. Our financial minister is trying to get Pakistan‘s $36 billion debt to the U.S. either forgiven or rescheduled on very comfortable terms.

The big question in Pakistan is, as tensions rise in the country, can the government safeguard its nuclear facility?

Presiding over a special session of the National Command Authority, the highest controlling authority of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, minutes of which were leaked to newspapers, President Musharraf said, “The country‘s strategic capabilities are fully safeguarded, and there exists no possibility whatsoever of their falling into the wrong hands.”

Rafiq Afghan, editor of a right-wing popular daily in Karachi called Unmat, wrote in an open letter to the government: “Stripped of ideology, an arsenal of 20,000 nuclear bombs could not save the Soviet Union from disintegration. Then how come Musharraf boasts of protectingsaving strategic assets when the state has retreated from its raison d’etre, i.e., the ideology of one Muslim nation.”

In the Daily Frontier Post, a Peshawar newspaper, a political commentator suggested that the U.S. is deliberately creating unrest in Pakistan so that Musharraf will be run out and the U.S. can step in to control its nuclear arsenal, “the breeding place of the only Islamic atomic bomb.”

All of the major newspapers in Pakistan ran quotes from a recent New Yorker piece about a plan by the U.S. and Israel to take over the country‘s nuclear facilities if the Musharraf government falls to fundamentalists. What concerns Pakistanis is not so much the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, but the leaking of nuclear-bomb-making information.

CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last year that Osama bin Laden was trying to obtain nuclear materials. In the early hours of October 24, intelligence agencies arrested two premier nuclear scientists — Sultan Bashir Mahmood and Dr. A. Majeed — along with six other peers from Islamabad and Lahore. All of them belong to Ummah Tameer Nao — the Muslim Nation’s Reconstruction — which had been working in Afghanistan. Though the exact nature of their job has not been disclosed, it is thought that they were assigned to an irrigation project. They are being investigated for alleged links to the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden. Sultan Bashir, who had been chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, is known for his fundamentalist views. In the early 1980s, he came into the limelight when he declared that he was going to record the temperature of hell.

Their arrests provoked an outcry in Pakistan. “If the government tried to deport these praiseworthy sons of the soil to the U.S., we will deport all who have sided with the U.S. in the war on Islam,” one zealot cried in a public meeting.

For me, Pakistan has been a country where nothing seems impossible. Now, it is hard to remain optimistic. Thousands of people from Pakistan have crossed into Afghanistan to fight the holy war after September 11. Back home, those religious parties who are agitating against President Musharraf proudly call themselves Taliban, and they boast about eventually taking over Pakistan with a popular movement. So the bad news for us and the entire world is that if these fanatics take over Pakistan, they might get ahold of atomic bombs. If they can play havoc with rifles and small bombs, then what will happen if Pakistan‘s future rulers, after a civil war, become fundamentalists? The unholy voice that calls for overthrowing Musharraf’s somewhat liberal government gains strength with the continued pounding of Afghanistan. Osama bin laden, with his finger on the nuclear button, could bring hell on Earth in no time. How we escape this doomsday scenario is up to our intention and intellect. Future rulers of Pakistan and Taliban, the writing is on the wall.

Ali Ahmed Rind writes a weekly political column for the English-language The News in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. He lives in Karachi with his wife and 9-month-old daughter.

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