Wednesday, October 24, 2001

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: Pakistanis Distrust U.S. Involvement

It's been a day filled with activity and unexpected surprises here in the capitol of Pakistan, Islamabad.

I arrived on an Emirates Airline flight from Dubai about 2:00AM. The Islamabad International Aiport is under heavy guard. A bomb explosion over the weekend damaged several vehicles and left it's mark on the exterior. No one was injured in the blast, but security at an airport already known for it's lack if security is the top priority.

I'm staying in Rawalpindi, the sister city of Islamabad. Over the last several weeks, Rawalpindi has been the scene of several protests against the campaign in Afghanistan. So far during my visit, there's no sign of protests or any public anti-American sentiment.In fact, here in Islamabad, you wouldn't think there's a war going on less than five hundred miles away. Life goes on as normal, and people, though concerned, seem to take the miliary action in stride. Since it's business as usual here in the Captiol, I'm able to see and talk with the ordinary Pakistani about a great deal of issues ranging from refugees to food.

The general feeling among Pakistanis is resentment towards America for supporting Israel in thier subjugation of the Palestinians. It comes up in almost every conversation about the current situation in Afghanistan. There's little to connect the two states, other than religion. Both are Muslim nations, and it's the feeling in the world of Islam that, with U.S. backing, Israel is able to undermine the Palestinians. And they fear there might be no end to the trend.

They also feel that the Afghan people are the victims in America's war on terrorism. It should be pointed out that no Afghan as been charged with an act of terrorism related to the September 11th attack. It's unlikely any were involved at all. But Arab-Afghans, most notably Osama Bin Laden, use Afghanistan as a hiding place, and so that is where the quagmire begins in this part of the world.

The Pakitanis have seen this sort of involvement by the Americans before. The U.S. supported the Mujahedeen (freedom fighters) during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. So did Pakistan, and with U.S. backing, Pakistan armed the Muhajedeen. When the Soviets left in 1989, the U.S. left Pakistan, and there's been civil war in Afghanistan ever since.

The U.S. is lifting economic sanctions against Pakistan to help the war on terrorism, and aid is slowly returning. But the Pakistanis fear that this is only a temporary arrangement with America, and as soon as the objectives in Afghanistan are met, the U.S. will once again abandon Pakistan in the wake of war on it's borders.As an American here, I don't feel that there's any security issue. Pakistan is getting a bad rap in the press, mostly because of the protests. But these protests that you see on television only represent a minority in Pakistan. Most don't like the war, but few protest against it. Those that do get air time on the news networks because an American flag burning makes for good television.

Not every Pakistani is a Muslim extremist. There's a tendency to stereotype in the wake of the attacks, and many Pakistanis can't understand the backlash to Arabs in America. It's also hard for me to explain it to them.

War creates these unfortunate byproducts that can't be rationalized. Another byroduct is the wave of human misery waiting for freedom at the Afghanistan border. Millions of refugees are trapped as Pakistans border officialy remains closed to them. There's simply no support to deal with them.And that's where I'm headed tomorrow - to Peshawar, Pakistans last outpost on the frontier with Afghanistan. For every refugee, there's a story to tell, and a face to show on television. I only have so much videotape.

The refugee camps that are set up in Pakistan are the staging ground for resistance to the Taliban. One organization recieving a lot of media attention is RAWA (Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan). To they Taliban, they're public enemy number one. RAWA works inside Afghanistan and in the refugee camps to empower and educate women. Under Taliban rule, women are brutally beaten and isolated from the rest of society. I arranged to meet with RAWA's spokesperson in secret last night here in Islamabad. She wished to remain anonymous, and hidden from the camera in our interview. Her parents still live in Kabul, and if the Taliban ever discovered this, her family would suffer. Her message is simple - let the women of Afghanitan go.

She is one voice and face in a sea of opposition to the ruling Taliban.

The regime's days are numbered, according to President Bush. RAWA certainly hopes so, as does Pakistan. Peace on it's border means less attention from the U.S..

It also means freedom from fear. It's a fear from war that has plagued an entire generation of Afghans.

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