Fear and Leaving in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD -- Foreigners living in Pakistan have started to leave the country in large numbers as the military government agrees to "full cooperation" with the United States in apprehending the masterminds of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

As fear of an American attack on Afghanistan mounts and complete secrecy shrouds the government's moves and decisions, foreigners working in multinational companies, oil companies, non-governmental organizations and other aid agencies have started to leave the country. "Most bookings are sought on a one-way travel basis. Most of the leaving foreigners are Europeans, American and Japanese and are either high-level managers or technical staff in foreign companies," confirmed officials in the international airlines and travel industry. However, none of the travel agents reported any extraordinary movement of diplomats or United Nations personnel.

Most of these foreigners are traveling in groups of 10 or more. A large bulk of traffic is directed to London and other European cities, Tokyo, and Dubai. A group of around 70 Japanese is leaving tomorrow for Tokyo and other East Asian destinations. Smaller groups of German and Dutch nationals are also leaving in the next few days for destinations in Europe. An unidentified number of American nationals working in Pakistan took an Emirates flight out of Pakistan on Wednesday. "The groups which are not getting reservations through to their destinations are just going to Dubai. They just want to get out of here," said another travel agent, requesting not to be named.

While foreigners are leaving the country, the Pakistani people are totally confused about the shape of things to come. They are still unaware of the weekend decisions on the level of cooperation that the country's National Security Council and the cabinet agreed to extend to Washington. The country's Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar gave little details as he addressed the press conference, though he said the Pakistani president would address the nation sometime soon. What he did clarify was Pakistan's position that it does not want to be part of any military action outside its borders.

General Musharraf has already started to meet the political leaders and opinion-makers to take them into confidence over cooperation Islamabad has extended to Washington, though an alliance of 42 mainstream parties has voiced its opposition to American attack on Afghanistan and asked the government not to allow the U.S. to use the country's ground or airspace for their purpose.

The situation also became more complex after the Taliban administration issued a warning that it would declare war on any neighboring country that allowed the United States forces use its ground or airspace for an attack on Afghanistan. The warning was apparently aimed at Pakistan, which is now pressuring the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden (the prime suspect for attacks on the American cities) to the United States. Though the chances are slim that the Taliban would give in, the move is said to be Islamabad's last-ditch effort to ward off a full-fledged U.S. attack on war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The Taliban militia said, on the other hand, it would regard such cooperation as an act of war. "In such an eventuality, our mujahideen (holy warriors) will have no option but to attack that neighboring country," Pakistani domestic newswires quoted a Taliban foreign ministry statement issued in Kabul. The Taliban also ordered foreigners living or working in Afghanistan to leave the country immediately.

Although the Pakistani government is not divulging the details of its cooperation with the United States, the press conference followed statements from Washington thanking the government and the people of Pakistan for extending all support in the American resolve to severe the roots of terrorism that it traces to Afghanistan. In line with the American requests, the country has already sealed its borders with Afghanistan and cut off supplies, particularly fuel, to the Taliban government.

Islamabad is also providing intelligence cooperation to the U.S. and helping it with information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other military training camps in the war-ravaged country. Similarly, it has allowed U.S. warplanes to access Pakistani air space in the event of a military strike.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he wanted to thank the president and people of Pakistan for the support that they have offered and their willingness to assist the U.S. in whatever might be required in that part of the world.

Some later reports also suggested that Pakistan wants the U.S. to forgive its more than $35 billion external debt and help resolve the Kashmir issue. But the Pakistani people are in no way ready to support the U.S. against the Taliban and Osama, who they regard as their hero.

The rightwing religious parties have already issued warnings to the military government not to cooperate with the United States for an action against the Taliban. "Any attack on Afghanistan or against Osama bin Laden will be considered an attack against the sovereignty of Pakistan and conspiracy against the defense and nuclear capability of the country," declared Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads the hardcore rightwing Jamiat Ulema Islam (Party of Muslim Scholars).

Maulana, who is very influential with the Taliban, warns that the 140 million people of Pakistan would overthrow the military government if it allowed U.S. forces to use its country's soil, airspace or any other facilities for a strike against Afghanistan. "If America uses our soil, then it means that we have lost our dignity and sovereignty," roared Maulana, who runs a network of Islamic schools throughout the country.

And it's not only the religious parties, but also the general public who idealize Osama bin Laden as their hero. "Osama is our hero. He is being punished for denouncing the American hegemony. The U.S. wants to crush any voice against its repressive policies. Our government should not be part of any action that may cause bloodshed of fellow Muslims," said Babar Ali, who runs a car rental in Islamabad.

People feel that Washington is biased towards the Muslims and that it has demonstrated total insensitivity towards the killings of thousands of people in Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq. "Are they not terrorists to have made the Iraqi nation suffer where innocent civilians, babies and women are dying? The Pakistani nation will not want to help the U.S. terrorize already suffering people in Afghanistan who are dying of hunger and disease," said Amna Sajjad, who studies in Islamic University in Islamabad.

Some press reports, though not officially confirmed, indicated that Musharraf (in his Saturday meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin) expressed Islamabad's readiness to offer its ground facilities to a multinational force. This commitment, however, appears to be in line with the decisions taken by the military top brass, which had set parameters for cooperation with the United States.

"The military government desires active Chinese and Islamic states' participation in any drive to confront Taliban," the English-language daily The News on Saturday quoted military sources as saying.

The top military leaders, according to press reports, agreed that cooperation with the U.S. is essential in view of the country's economic situation. They feared that in the event of non-cooperation, Washington would do everything to financially squeeze Islamabad, which is already facing numerous sanctions after its nuclear tests in 1998. Pakistan is burdened under a staggering $35 billion in external loans and even higher domestic debt. The country is also negotiating a $3.5 billion poverty reduction package with the International Monetary Fund in the next few weeks, which military leaders thought would be jeopardized.

However, the situation stays fluid and uncertain, as the military government did not divulge any details to the public, though it reiterated cooperation for any international effort to root out terrorism. "Pakistan cannot join any attack on Afghan brethren. The U.S. should first decide and reveal how it came to know Osama's link to the devastation in New York and Washington," commented retired Gen. Aslam Baig, a former chief of the Pakistani army.  

Muddassir Rizvi is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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