For years, Pakistan has seemed a place about to blow. Bankruptcy is at the door; angry mullahs are at the gate. The corruption of the powerful is epic, the poverty of the masses crushing. The army has taken charge, again putting democracy on the shelf. More people own guns than refrigerators.
This country, then, may seem a strange choice as America's indispensable ally in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Islamic guerrillas — many would call them terrorists — openly operate inside Pakistan's borders, with government support.
But for the Bush administration, Pakistan it is — a rediscovered crony from America's cold war days, forced back into friendship at gunpoint to fight terrorism. In his Sept. 19 speech to the nation, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler for the last two years, explained that he was facing an American ultimatum — join us or fight us — and that he felt that the country's very survival was at risk.
In many ways, it is. The country is polarized. On one side stand sympathizers with the West who have felt increasingly marginalized in recent years and believe that the current turmoil may be a rare stroke of fortune that halts the "Talibanization" of Pakistan, a drift toward the fundamentalist Islam of neighboring Afghanistan. On the other stand the holy warriors, the hope of the country's myriad dispossessed.
Pakistan, with a population between 140 million and 150 million, is the world's seventh most populous country. Like many nations in the third world, it seems to be simultaneously moving ahead and falling behind at frantic speeds. It is this dichotomy that explains some of the violence of the country's conflicts.
Today, someone claiming to be from one of the best-known of Pakistan's radical Islamic guerrilla groups, Jaish-e-Muhammad, took responsibility for a suicide bombing at the state legislature in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack killed at least 26 people.
One of this region's many open secrets is that the Pakistani government itself has armed Islamic militants, sending them off to fight the Indian authorities in Kashmir in an attempt to wrest the contested Himalayan territory, which is primarily Muslim, from Hindu control.
A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a statement today, condemned the Srinagar attack. "Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," he said.
But whatever the government's past relationship to Jaish-e-Muhammad, it seems clear that the United States, in its new determination to combat terrorism, has sided with a military government that has not been averse to backing insurgency in Kashmir.
Radical Muslim political parties, historically weak at the polls, are traditionally potent in the streets, where the number of poor and the number of refugees grow. Kalashnikovs are everywhere, as are men who know how to use them. Twin jihads — one in Afghanistan, one in Kashmir — save many from the idle hours of joblessness and fill them with lethal, self-righteous purpose.
But the radical Islamists drawn to holy war, however grateful for their supply of guns and grenades, very often despise the national leaders who provide them. The more those Pakistani leaders look like American cronies working to oust the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the more the hate may grow.
By drafting this fragile and fractious nation into a central role in the "war on terrorism," America runs the danger of setting off a cataclysm in a place where civil violence is a likely bet and nuclear weapons exist.
Pakistan has long been the speculated locale for one of the world's worst nightmare scenario, in which Islamic terrorists, in league with rogue elements of the military, seize control of the government and wield the vengeful sword of jihad with a nuclear tip.
Islam is a growing force here. Hundreds of religious schools, known as madrassahs, have eagerly sent their students to fight at the Taliban's side. Pakistani border guards wish them well as they head to the front lines.
Last Friday, in a drama repeated in hundreds of towns and cities across the country, mullahs at the Red Mosque in Islamabad followed the gentle chanting of afternoon prayers with frenzied threats of violence: Death to America! Let Americans come here to be buried!
A plea went out for 50,000 volunteers to defend Afghanistan against "the infidels." The entreaty was made with the desperate ardor of merchants at a going-out-of-business sale. Many of Pakistan's fundamentalist clerics endorse the Taliban's formula for a pure Islamic state. Without the Taliban, these mullahs would be without their rallying point.
An 18-year-old spectator, Tai Muhammad, said he had pledged his life to the anti-American jihad, enlisting at the mosque's sign-up table. "People like me will be the Americans' reception committee," he said, grinning in satisfaction.
Lambasted along with President Bush was General Musharraf, called a traitor to his country, his religion and 1,400 years of Islamic history.
Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden's sanctuary, is not merely Pakistan's neighbor. Pakistani intelligence agents have been the Taliban's godfathers, turning a throng of self- righteous religious students into a militia of self-assured soldiers.
Until recently, the Taliban have been useful to Pakistan, providing an ally on its western flank as rival India lurks to the east, and a breeding ground for Islamic militancy that could be redirected toward Kashmir.
So to many at the Red Mosque, Pakistan's cooperation with America seems like a sellout.
American money, of course, is not an insignificant inducement, especially to a nation $37 billion in debt with virtually no prospects of climbing out of the hole.
So far, a windfall has yet to appear, though America — suddenly forgiving of the testing of nuclear weapons and the eschewing of democracy — has removed many economic sanctions against Pakistan. Together with the Japanese, the United States has rescheduled nearly $1 billion in debt and authorized $90 million in aid.
Indeed, renewed solvency is the hope of many Pakistanis who believe that a decisive battle has at last been joined.
"It's a wonderful thing," said a retired general, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We were in a state of drift. The silent majority was being dragged in a terrible direction by a very vocal minority. This is God-sent. We're saved."
That optimistic view is shared by much of a Westernized elite that would see the Taliban's overthrow as the logical halt to the onrushing fundamentalism in their own midst.
Many have long assumed that an upheaval was inevitable, with moderate Islam battling the religion's extremist, intolerant version.
That confrontation is better fought now than later, they say. "If there is a silver lining in this, it's that the radicals, the jihadists, will be de- fanged now instead of 10 years later when they'd be stronger," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and peace activist.
But radicalism has deep social roots here. In the cities, the turn of a street corner can seem to be time travel between centuries. Wide boulevards clogged with expensive cars become narrow lanes where shrouded women carry jugs of water on their heads.
About 75 percent of all Pakistanis reside in rural areas. Most are sharecroppers, eking out a subsistence. In some areas, feudal families still hold sway, making private laws and operating private jails.
While the wealthy send their children to college in America or Britain, many of the poor are deprived of even an elementary education. The literacy rate is below 40 percent. A fifth of Pakistan's government schools are "ghosts," with buildings but no students or teachers, General Musharraf himself admitted. This void increasingly has been filled by thousands of madrassahs. Considered a godsend by the destitute, they feed and house their pupils while teaching them the wisdom of the Koran and the moral requirement to fight in holy wars.
Islam is the great refuge of Pakistan's masses. In mosques, in the fields, on the roadsides, men drop to their knees and perform their daily prayers. However empty their pockets, they are equal in these genuflections before God.
But it is not a simple picture. Fundamentalist Muslims, like secular ones, are minorities. Between them are a multitude of gradations in the practices of faith — one reason why recent polls suggest layers of ambivalence about the current crisis,
Before General Musharraf's address to the nation on Friday, the pollster asked people whom they would support in a war between America and Afghanistan. Seven percent said America and 67 percent Afghanistan, with about 26 percent neutral. Four days after the speech, those who said they would side with the United States remained the same, though 20 percent shifted from Afghanistan to neutrality.
Some of this sentiment reflects a general doubt that America has enough proof against Mr. bin Laden to warrant a punishing attack on Afghanistan. At the same time, many Pakistanis are merely wary of America, regarded as a companion of shallow sincerity.
"Unfortunately, America seems to be Pakistan's friend only when it suits America's needs," said Zahid Mahmood, a bank manager. "When the need is over, America deserts you."
In the 1980's, America had great needs in the region. In late 1979, the Soviet Union sent its troops into Afghanistan, getting itself closer to a warm-water port. Using Pakistan as a pipeline, the United States and other nations then financed the Afghan resistance. The Soviets soon found themselves bogged down in a crippling war against guerrillas adept at mountain combat. The cold war's end swiftly followed the Soviets' humbling retreat in 1989.
America's attention span, as well its affection, did not last much longer. That was a shock to Pakistan.
Money had seemed a token of friendship, and in 1990 the United States aid package to Pakistan was $564 million; only Israel and Egypt received more. But then the largesse was suddenly withdrawn, the penalty for Pakistan's continuing program to develop nuclear weapons in pace with its archenemy India.
"Looking out for No. 1, that's the American way, isn't it?" snickered Ajab Gul, a barber in Peshawar. "That is what Americans are proud of. We're different."
But the loyalties of Pakistanis are no simple matter, either.
In 1947, after a flurry of cartography, Pakistan and India were mapped out of the British Empire. Pakistan was devised with religious cohesion as a Muslim state. But it, rather than India, has been the one struggling for a national identity.
The country is split among several ethnicities and languages. Mr. Gul, the barber, is Pashtun and admits to feeling a greater affinity for the Pashtuns of Afghanistan than the Sindis of Karachi or the Punjabis of Lahore in his native land.
Democracy has never taken a firm foothold. The military has remained the dominant institution, and while it has failed in its three wars with India, it has had repeated success in overthrowing its own democratically elected governments.
During the 1990's, however, it was civilian governments that generally maintained control. The indefatigably corrupt governments of Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — as well the stopped-up American spigot — helped plunge the economy into the red while at the same time discrediting democracy in the eyes of the people.
Both Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif now live in exile. Their political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, are in disarray. For now, public assembly is forbidden.
By order of the Supreme Court, a return to civilian government is supposed to occur by next October. General Musharraf, who recently assumed the title of president, has promised to abide by the timetable.
But his future, like his country's, is now linked to matters that could not have been foreseen a month ago: the number of American soldiers who will touch Pakistani soil, the amount of blood spilled in reflexive outrage, the havoc caused by the coming onrush of refugees and the furtive ability of a Saudi-born multimillionaire named Osama bin Laden.
This article was published in Tuesday (Oct 2nd) issue of "The NewYorkTimes". This article is creating ripples in the insecure Pak circles. They too know how short American Memory is when it comes to taking help from nations like them, Iraq and Afghanistan!! Goto http://www.syberwurx.com/nation/daily/today/main/top3.htm to read an editorial published in Pakistan newspaper "The Nation" about this article.