United Fundamentalist States
George Szamuely
New York Press


Not the least bizarre aspect of the recent bizarre goings-on in Pakistan has been the response of the United States. In no time at all Washington signaled its approval of the overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad, William B. Milam, announced that the new leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, "seems like a pragmatic, moderate person, intelligent and patriotic and wanting to turn this country around." Bill Clinton professed himself to be pleasantly surprised by Musharraf’s first speech: "A lot of what he said on the substance, including the conciliatory tone he took toward India, I thought was quite good," he declared. As usual, the media were happy to parrot the U.S. government line. "With his ramrod demeanor and personal vow of integrity, Musharraf embodies the hope that an honest tough guy can fix what ails Pakistan," gushed The New York Times. Musharraf, we learned from The Washington Post, was a "modern thinker," a "religious moderate." In addition, "he enjoys Western music" and even "occasionally drinks alcohol."

This was odd, to say the least. When the democratically elected leader of Haiti was ousted by the military, the U.S. mounted an invasion to restore him to power. This time, however, we heard nothing about "brutal dictators" and "military despots."

There were other peculiarities. What had former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif done to make himself such a hated figure in Pakistan? Apparently, his greatest failing had been excessive cravenness toward the United States. In July he succumbed to pressure from the Clinton administration and ordered the withdrawal of Pakistani-based Islamic militants and regular troops from the Kargil mountains of Indian Kashmir. But who had sponsored this incursion?

Why, the army, of course, led by its chief of staff, Pervez Musharraf.

Americans were not the only ones to express their enthusiasm about the new leadership. Kashmiri guerrilla groups also hailed the new regime. The military, they announced, had a "better understanding" of the Kashmir dispute than the civilian government. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar also commended the coup: "We can firmly say that this change is a reaction to some moves by some foreign powers against the pride and independence" of Pakistan.

Taliban happiness is not surprising. Musharraf had spent much of the 1980s training the Afghan mujahideen in its war against the Soviets. He is close to a number of fundamentalist groups that are involved with the Muslim guerrillas in Kashmir. Moreover, during the latter days of the Nawaz Sharif regime, Pakistan – hitherto a close friend of the Taliban – had been busy reducing its involvement in Afghanistan. In August, a Pakistani delegation had gone to Tajikistan with the aim of bringing the warring Afghani factions together.

Just before his forced departure Sharif had embarked on a major antiterrorist campaign. Responding to a series of violent attacks on Shiite Muslims, he demanded that the Taliban close down terrorist training camps in southwest Afghanistan. One day before his dismissal, Sharif and his intelligence chief, Gen. Khwaja Ziauddin, had gone to Dubai to discuss Taliban-sponsored violence in Pakistan with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates. (Along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates is the only other state in the world to recognize the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan.)

The Taliban thus had every reason to welcome the departure of Sharif. But why was Washington so happy? Could it possibly be that the U.S. Government is not quite the sworn enemy of Islamic fundamentalism that it professes itself to be? As a matter of fact, militant Islam has always served U.S. interests admirably. During the 1980s it was put to good use in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today, it is used to undermine states that the United States wants to see undermined. In recent years, the United States committed its resources to creating a Muslim state in Bosnia. Islamic militants from Iran and elsewhere poured into Sarajevo – all with the approval and encouragement of the United States. It turns out that even our old friend Osama bin Laden – a veteran of the U.S.-sponsored Afghan campaign – was granted a Bosnian passport in 1993.

A few months ago, Americans were smashing to pieces a Christian country on behalf of Muslim Albanians. Islamic militants based in Chechnya recently invaded neighboring Dagestan and proclaimed an Islamic republic there. The aim is to cut Russia off from the strategic and oil-rich Caspian Sea. Muslim Uighur separatists are seeking to detach Xinjiang province from China.

The leading exporter of Islamic militancy in the world today is the Taliban. The Kashmiri guerrillas, the Uighur separatists, not to mention the Chechen rebels, all receive support and inspiration from the Taliban. Washington is more than happy to see Russia or China bogged down for years fighting separatist insurgencies. Russia, China and India have pledged themselves to fighting Islamic terrorism. In August, Russia and China joined Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in signing a declaration committing them to fight against cross-border crime, separatism and extremism. The five countries declared their "determination to prevent the use of their territories from engineering activities detrimental to the sovereignty, [and] security…of any of the five states."

The United States – normally the world’s most vocal opponent of international terrorism – has been curiously silent about recent Islamic violence. Chechnya – home to terrorist gangs, foreign mercenaries and Islamic fundamentalists – recently dispatched guerrillas across the border with a view to taking over Dagestan. What was the U.S. response? Government spokesmen and, of course, the media immediately parroted the line that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had nothing to do with anything. He had no control over the Chechen-based guerrillas who attacked Dagestan, or over the terrorists who blew up apartment buildings in Moscow.

Confronted by terrorism the likes of which Americans can barely imagine, the Russian government responded with force. Effete little Jamie Rubin was quickly on hand to warn that "any resumption of general hostilities in Chechnya would damage Russia’s own interests… We are concerned…that the use of force will make…dialogue that much harder." He went on to admonish the Russians against "making Chechens or people from the Caucasus second class citizens." It comes as no surprise that President Maskhadov recently asked NATO to step in and resolve matters in Chechnya "in line with the norms of international law."

Just as NATO created a Greater Albania, so now it will create a fattened Chechnya with access to the riches of the Caspian Sea. NATO’s idea of international law is to bomb a country so as to make it safe for foreign investment. In the case of Chechnya, this may turn out to be rather lucrative. The U.S. is desperate to build the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline linking the Caspian and the Black Seas that would go through Dagestan and Chechnya.

Publicly, the United States sounds as if it were a firm enemy of the Taliban. Recently, the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution decreeing that sanctions would be imposed on the Taliban if Osama bin Laden was not handed over within 30 days. Yet these sanctions are scarcely onerous. Countries are to ban flights by planes owned or operated by the Taliban. In addition, all foreign accounts of the Taliban are to be frozen. However, exceptions are made for flights or funds approved in advance on humanitarian grounds by a watchdog sanctions committee to be established by the Security Council. This would include flights for the annual hadj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Compared to what Yugoslavia has had to endure for years and years, this is pretty meager stuff. Not surprisingly, the Taliban announced that it had no intention of handing over bin Laden.

What is interesting is that the only bone of contention between the U.S. and the Taliban is Osama bin Laden. Americans want to get their hands on him. On the other hand, they do not want to do anything to undermine the Taliban. It is far too useful to Washington. Indeed, there are rumors of a possible deal whereby the Taliban hands over bin Laden in exchange for U.S. diplomatic recognition. Who knows, there might even be a pipeline route in it for Afghanistan.

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