As US staging ground, Pakistan a powderkeg

Authorities brace for a backlash if US launches strikes on Afghanistan.

Choose your weapon. Hand-held rocket launchers with armor-piercing ammunition, homemade Kalashnikovs, replicas of German Mausers, or authentic Remington shotguns. Pakistan's northwestern frontier offers an arsenal that could satisfy any "holy warriors" who might try to thwart US attacks on neighboring Afghanistan.

The ready supply of weapons, increasingly angry locals, and Afghan fighters slipping over the border could create a combustible mix of opponents to US forces based in Pakistan.

All indications are that the US is pulling together its coalition and inching closer and closer to launching attacks against bordering Afghanistan.

• A US Defense Department delegation is now sharing evidence with Pakistani authorities implicating Osama bin Laden in the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

• Saudi Arabia yesterday broke ties with Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan the lone country to recognize the Taliban regime.

• Russia has offered the US support in terms of airspace and weapons shipments to rebels fighting the Afghan government.

• NATO leaders are meeting today to hear the evidence President Bush has gathered linking Mr. bin Laden to this month's attacks.

The Pentagon so far has kept secret its plans to launch attacks on Afghanistan, as well as its strategy to deal with the pressing issue of protection for US troops likely to be stationed in the region. Still, Pakistan's arsenal of small arms, as well as the threat of car bomb and suicide attacks - especially in light of bin Laden's call on Monday for a Pakistani uprising against the US - present challenges that can't be ignored.

A 'very tense' situation

From the hills above Islamabad to the narrow side streets around Peshawar's main military airbase, Pakistani authorities are already rushing to establish new police and military checkpoints. The moves are geared toward preventing what authorities expect to be a "terrorist backlash," should the United States launch attacks from here. Officials say the security measures are being put into place to prevent possible attacks on both US installations and Pakistani government offices.

"We have mobilized all our resources," a senior security official said yesterday. "The situation here is under control - but it is tense, very tense."

The proliferation of small weapons is a major concern. Pakistan's deadly mix of arms production and explosives expertise is likely to make the country the most difficult theater of military operations faced by American forces in decades - at least since Vietnam, experts here say.

In the town Dara Adam Khel, about an hour's drive from Peshawar, some 10,000 locals are directly employed in the arms industry. Local gunsmiths, whose forefathers supplied arms crucial in the ouster of British colonialists, now manufacture replicas of Russian, Chinese, and American arms. Machine-guns, hand grenades, rocket-launched grenades, and even small missiles are produced daily.

"Sales of Kalashnikovs have been increasing over the past week," says Jam Shaid, a salesman in one of the shops stocked from roof to basement with small arms. "The price has risen from 8,000 rupees [about $120] to 16,000 rupees." If those prices sound steep, one can also buy a grenade for just $2, he adds.

The northwestern frontier's arms factories experienced a boom during the Afghan war to expel Soviet forces. Manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand. Many managers of the 400-plus arms factories in Pakistan maintain strong links with the Islamic jihad forces that continue to operate on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Trained by US for 'holy war'

Pakistani fears, both for their own forces and those of a foreign power, are linked to the fears of American security officials working in the US. British and American military trainers taught "holy warriors" during the Afghan war how to build bombs and engage in sophisticated sabotage tactics against Soviet forces. Skills included the understanding and use of sophisticated fuses, timers, and explosives, as well as remote-control devices for triggering mines and bombs.

There have been several bomb attacks in Pakistan during the two decades since the start of the Afghan war. Among them: In 1995, 26 people were killed in an attack carried out in Peshawar. In 1998, when US fighter jets bombed neighboring Afghanistan, grenade-wielding mobs attacked a guest house in the city center, only to be repelled by a manager who threatened them with his Kalashnikov. Just last week, several Pakistanis were killed by a car bomb in the nearby town of Sadar.

"The locals here can make all manner of modern and sophisticated weapons," says Shamin Shahid, Peshawar bureau chief of The Nation newspaper. "Much of that expertise was gleaned from American and British trainers during the Afghan war. Sophisticated and automatic weapons left behind by the former communists and Mujahideen in the Afghanistan war went into the hands of local influential criminals."

Bomb attacks in Pakistan are often carried out from moving vehicles - from cars and buses to bicycles and horse carts.

But if US forces do eventually launch attacks from any number of air bases across Pakistan, the greatest threat will not come from Afghans or Pakistanis, says Mr. Shahid.

"The idea of a suicide bomb attack has never caught on with the locals, for that the US troops will have to look out for Arabs coming across the border from Afghanistan, where most of them have fled at the moment," he says. "They will be able to move back into Pakistan with ease, however, with the thousands of refugees expected to flee famine and bombing. Some might dress in a lady's head-to-foot burqa, which would cover their face and disguise their sex."

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