Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 7, 2001
U.S. wooing bitter rivals as its allies
Rebels' hatred of Pakistan poses problem for U.S. 

At War With Terror

FEYZABAD, Afghanistan - Baqi Khan, the owner of a small fabric shop on the narrow streets of this city's bustling bazaar, detests Pakistan almost as much as he hates the Taliban.

"Pakistan brings this war to our country," said Khan, echoing the nearly unanimous opinion of people who live in this anti-Taliban enclave in northern Afghanistan.

In rebel-held Afghanistan, there is great animosity toward Pakistan, the regional power and main sponsor of the Taliban. And the feeling is mutual: Pakistan's leaders distrust the Northern Alliance, the coalition of groups fighting the Taliban.

This presents a profound problem for the United States as it tries to embrace both Pakistan and the Northern Alliance as key allies in its coalition against Osama bin Laden.

Even if American bombs were able to dislodge the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over bin Laden, the result could further destabilize a country that has been at war for 23 years. The Northern Alliance lacks representation of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Pashtuns lead the Taliban and make up a vocal minority in Pakistan, which is unlikely to stand by and watch the Americans help install an Afghan government that does not represent them.

Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan runs deep. As a client state, Afghanistan gives Pakistan control of a key neighboring market as well as Central Asian trade routes. By assuring that Pashtuns control Afghanistan, Pakistan can mollify its own restless Pashtun population. Also, Afghanistan's terrorist camps have proven useful for training militants in Pakistan's conflict with India in disputed Kashmir.

Pakistan has supported the Taliban with millions of dollars of military assistance, logistical support and development projects. Northern Alliance commanders say that Pakistan also provides the troops entrenched in the Taliban's front lines.

"Pakistan is continuing to support the Taliban, sending arms, fuel and replacement parts," said Col. Nazir Mohammed, an alliance military commander on the front line a few hours from Feyzabad. "People in Taliban-controlled areas still think that Pakistan will come to the Taliban's rescue."

Though Pakistan is the only nation that still recognizes the Taliban, it distanced itself last week as the United States stepped up efforts to organize an international coalition against terrorism.

But in rebel-controlled Afghanistan, the mantra repeated by nearly everyone is that Pakistan is only misleading the West about its interests in Afghanistan.

In Feyzabad's bazaar, where shopkeepers sit cross-legged in small stalls surrounded by carefully arrayed merchandise, sentiment runs deep that America, because of its Cold War reliance on Pakistan as its intermediary to support rebel forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, tends to see Afghanistan through Pakistani eyes.

"The Taliban was supported by Pakistan, and Pakistan was supported by the Americans," said Ghafar Haqbin, a moneychanger. "Now the Americans say the Taliban are their enemies. It's unbelievable."

Many traders say they have encountered Pakistani soldiers on their frequent travels across Taliban lines to smuggle goods.

"I saw Pakistani soldiers myself, on the front line," said Khan, the fabric seller who keeps his beard long to avoid harassment by the Taliban's ideological enforcers who require all men to wear long beards. "They give us trouble."

Khan, with typical graciousness of the region, yesterday invited several visitors to take off their shoes and climb into his wooden stall, built on a platform about the size of a shipping container and packed with bolts of cloth. His desk is equipped with a calculator and an ancient telephone operated by a hand-crank, and it shields great bricks of Afghani currency.

A curious crowd gathered outside his stall to gaze at the spectacle of foreigners.

Like many Afghanis, Khan said he believes Pakistan encourages Afghan instability to keep Afghan Pashtuns from asserting traditional claims over Pashtun lands inside Pakistan. He doesn't blame the Taliban as much as Pakistan for Afghanistan's problems.

Khan explained that while hatred of Pakistan is nearly universal here, so is Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistan. The evidence is plain throughout the market, where bulk commodities such as concrete and fuel arrive on slow trucks from Tajikistan and a surprising amount of goods are smuggled across the porous battle lines from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But the single most important source of goods is Pakistan, even though it has no legal border crossings into opposition territory.

About half the fabric in Khan's store came from Pakistani mills. He personally smuggled it in a month ago on 50 donkeys over a 15,000-foot Hindu Kush mountain pass.

The mountain route, which follows an old road built with U.S. funds to supply mujaheddin rebel forces during the Soviet occupation, has become the preferred corridor to import goods from Pakistan. The road has deteriorated so that it is now passable only by horse and donkey during the warmer months.

Traders say perhaps a thousand donkeys a day move along the trail, importing everything from pharmaceuticals to car parts and detergent to an isolated population.

"It's a mountainous area, very dangerous," said Mohammed Azim Rahimi, 36, who arrived in Feyzabad last week with $3,500 worth of Thermos jugs, soap, batteries, baby formula and dried milk. "Even some donkeys fall down and die. There are also lots of mines along the road."

Khan said he and other traders had been forced to smuggle the goods at great risk since the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 and it became impossible to move goods out of the capital.

He doesn't particularly like doing business with a country he hates, where he feels treated as a second-class citizen because he is an Afghan from the Tajik minority.

"We have to do this business because we have no fabric in Afghanistan," he said. "We go to Pakistan, and I look at the Afghan refugees. It's really difficult to look at them. It makes me feel sad." home page   
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