Pakistan reaches out to Afghans

Musharraf visits, vows to fight terror

April 03, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on his first visit to Afghanistan, pledged yesterday to fight terrorism side by side with its new government. He asked Afghans to overlook Pakistan's six years of support for Islamic extremists, including the Taliban.

The two nations "have lived like brothers through the ages," said Musharraf, who heads Pakistan's quasi-military government. And if the two nations found themselves on opposite sides during Afghanistan's most recent war, he said, "we need to bury" the memory of that.

"We have historic, cultural, religious, geographic links," he said. "Sometimes we have differences between brothers. There's no reason that we can't overcome those differences."

Musharraf made the brief flight here yesterday morning from Islamabad to meet with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim chief of state. They conferred behind the high walls of Afghanistan's fortresslike presidential palace, with its marble pillars and broad Afghan rugs.

While Afghans in uniform and Americans in plain clothes provided security in the carefully tended palace gardens, the two leaders met inside to discuss rebuilding road, air and communications links. Afghanistan's highways and utility networks have been heavily damaged by two decades of war.

They also talked about two subjects of urgent interest to the United States - how to stop die-hard al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from slipping back and forth across the long, porous border, and strategies for reducing the production of opium and heroin.

The harvest season for the poppy crop is weeks away, and U.S. officials say privately that they think little can be done to curtail production without creating more economic hardship in Afghanistan and eroding support for the struggling central government.

Words of welcome

At a joint news conference with Musharraf, Karzai fondly recalled how Pakistan sheltered the Islamic guerrillas, called mujahedeen, who battled Soviet forces during their occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

"We were all there at one point or another as the mujahedeen," Karzai said.

With typical Afghan hospitality, Karzai praised Pakistan's leader for providing financial assistance to the victims of the deadly earthquake last week in Baglan province in northern Afghanistan. He called Musharraf, who took power in a coup in 1999, "our good neighbor" and "a very nice person."

Both men avoided any explicit mention of the awkward subject of Pakistan's critical military and financial support for the Taliban against the opposition Northern Alliance.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghan warlords fell to fighting for control of the country. Pakistan eventually backed the Taliban, which took power in 1996 and at first seemed the only force capable of stopping the destructive Afghan civil war.

Before Sept. 11, the Taliban had captured most of Afghanistan, and Northern Alliance forces were pinned down in remote valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains.

Musharraf withdrew support for what became a brutal Taliban regime only after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and only under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States. As late as last fall, Musharraf was urging a role for "moderate" Taliban in any new Afghan government.

Karzai said the interim government holds no grudge against Musharraf. The Afghan leader said Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, the former military chief of the Northern Alliance who is now minister of defense, delayed a trip to Kandahar yesterday so he could shake Musharraf's hand at the airport.

Musharraf said the meeting with Fahim was a warm one, despite their history.

"He called me a brother and I called him a brother," Musharraf said. "And I say that I mean every word of it."

Ethnic rivalries

Not everyone was feeling so fraternal, perhaps. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, one of the most influential members of the Northern Alliance, did not show up for yesterday's news conference. Abdullah was bitterly critical of the Musharraf government long after it withdrew support for the Taliban.

Many Northern Alliance commanders such as Abdullah are minority Tajiks, who have numerous reasons to dislike Pakistan, which has many of its own ethnic Pashtuns who influence policy toward Afghanistan. The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, made up most of the Taliban, and remain rivals with Tajiks and other ethnic groups for power.

Because of this, many ordinary Afghans view Musharraf as untrustworthy.

"The Afghan people weren't happy to see him," said Lt. Najibullah Khalili, who fought for the Northern Alliance and is to be trained for Afghanistan's new national army. "He was an uninvited guest."

The role of the ISI

Like many brothers in arms, Khalili believes that Pakistan's intelligence agency - the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI - continues to shelter and support Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

"If the ISI isn't helping the Taliban, why are they letting them stay in their country?" Khalili asked.

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