With us or against us

Coalition: Objective must be to drive wedges between terrorists and Islamic mainstream

September 18, 2001

TERRORISTS ARE as much a threat to the secular governments and mainstream societies of Islamic countries as they are to the rest of the world. As the Bush administration scours the world for allies, the main effort must be to isolate Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors in Afghanistan from the Islamic world, not drive them together.

Many Islamic regimes are anxious to help, though not necessarily to be seen helping. Many harbor and fear indigenous movements of a similar nature.

Tajikistan, from which the anti-Taliban alliance operates, has offered help to Washington but not staging areas for incursions.

Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic with a smaller border on Afghanistan, is willing to discuss such use of its territory.

But the key country in the middle is nuclear-armed Pakistan, a former U.S. ally. Its Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency helped choose the organizations the CIA aided throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Pakistan is the leading friend and mentor to Afghanistan's Taliban regime, and its security forces have a pro-Islamic tilt.

U.S. carrots and sticks won over Pakistan's strong man, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He reportedly offered use of Pakistani air space and intelligence on Osama bin Laden. The messenger he sent to lean on the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is the ISI chief, Gen. Mahmood Ahmed.

He brings formidable pressure on the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden to Washington.

But it works both ways. Pakistan is fragile. Pakistan and Afghanistan report each other massing troops near the border. A council of 42 Pakistani organizations demanded noncooperation with the United States. Peshawar, Pakistan's city on the border, has an Afghan majority.

Fear of U.S. bombing has propelled Afghan refugees toward Pakistan, Iran and China, all of which are trying to keep them out. Pakistan's internal stability is at risk.

The first state visitor to the United States after the atrocity is Megawati Sukarnoputri, president of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. She is due to arrive tomorrow, and will make the most of common cause against terrorism to seek aid for her ailing economy.

Another country anxious to be helpful, in return for help with its own problems, is Russia.

Moscow sees the hand of bin Laden in Chechnya. It has intelligence to share on Afghanistan, however ruefully.

Many Americans are sympathetic to Chechen autonomists. But Washington has never favored independence there. It's probable that many ad hoc alliances in the war on terrorism will not be comfortable. This is only one.

Most Arab regimes fear bin Laden and their own Islamist movements even more than they fear being seen as too close to Washington. Many may offer quiet help, while few or none would join a raid on an Islamic country.

The challenge to the Bush administration is to make the most of these opportunities and avoid the many pitfalls.

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