"The American government doesn't understand," says Abdullah, an earnest young Pakistani Muslim praying at a mosque known for its moderate bent. "US policy against the Taliban is not just unfair, it is cruel. We don't want violence. But a lot of us secretly feel it is deserved."
In the wake of Friday's rocket attacks against UN and US government offices here, and as UN sanctions against Afghanistan's Taliban regime went into effect yesterday, officials are bracing for the possibility of further attacks.
No groups have claimed responsibility. But with at least eight growing militant Islamic organizations now operating in Pakistan, and with any number of loose cells of young men trained in a network of orthodox Islamist schools who travel between Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan - the identity of the militants may not surface any time soon.
In October, United Nations order 1267 gave the Taliban government 30 days to unconditionally extradite Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, suspected of engineering the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which left 224 people dead. The Taliban have stated repeatedly they will not turn over Mr. Bin Laden - an act that would violate a deeply held ethos among the mostly ethnic Pashtun peoples that requires them to offer protection to those considered guests.
The Taliban had requested a delay of UN sanctions, which were not honored. And in downtown Kabul yesterday, thousands of angry young men demonstrated against the US and attacked UN offices in protest.
Nor are the sanctions popular in Pakistan. Northern Pakistanis and Afghanis share an ethnic and religious bond. The UN deadline, which shuts down air traffic to Kabul and freezes the assets of a country already desperately poor, is seen even by Western-oriented Pakistani officials as clumsy at best and dangerously counterproductive at worst. They say quiet diplomacy, monetary aid, and patience would be far more effective with the proud Taliban, who are eager to gain international recognition, but who will lose face if seen as buckling to the infidel West.
"Look, the Taliban want Osama to leave. But they are a different breed of people," says leading Pakistani writer Shaheed-ur-Rehman. "I'm afraid the sanctions are seen as adding to the suffering of an already suffering people."
After the embassy bombings in August last year, US warships launched 17 cruise missiles against paramilitary camps in Afghanistan, where Bin Laden is suspected of hiding out. The rockets missed Bin Laden - but turned the unknown Saudi millionaire into something of a roguish local hero. Journalists who interviewed the reclusive Bin Laden last spring say he travels with a group of 20 to 30 loyalists.
In Islamabad, the still-forming government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which desires international acceptance after a popular coup here Oct. 12, is busy tracking down the perpetrators of Friday's six rocket launches, which hit a UN office and largely missed two US diplomatic buildings. The problem is a sensitive one for the new government, which has stated that it will crack down on Islamic militants. But the military has had close relations with the Taliban, which is considered to have been largely created by Pakistan in the mid-1990s. The bombs went off on the one-month anniversary of the General Musharraf's coup, in midday, in a tightly guarded capital city where such violence has high symbolic value. Last week, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar warned of "earthquakes and storms" if the sanctions went into effect.
In Washington the attacks were represented in some quarters as a "message" or "warning." But some US officials who narrowly escaped harm say the attacks were more than that. Had they been been properly shot, the destruction would have been much greater.
Security experts speculated that the attacks were carried out by young Islamists unfamiliar with carrying out operations in a tight city environment. The tube-fired missiles were bolted to the frames of three vehicles in public parking lots. The cars used as launch pads were parked too close to the targets. Relatively light vehicles, the cars "lifted" during the force of the launch and thus shifted the flight path of the rockets.
The morning after the attack, the leader of a newly powerful militant group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, held an already scheduled press conference in Islamabad. They are calling for the Koran to replace the current constitution of Pakistan, and criticize Musharraf for publicly citing secular Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk as a role model, rather than the Prophet Muhammad. In a meeting with the Monitor, Lashkar press secretary Abdullah Muntazer condemned the American policy toward Bin Laden. "To get one man, the US is seeking the hatred of all Muslims," he says.
Afghanistan is a rugged and landlocked country, and difficult to access easily except by air. When the one or two working Afghan Ariana jets are grounded, the transport of mail with much needed money from families abroad will close, and workers who fly in and out to the Gulf will have to find new routes.
Since Oct. 12, the Pakistan Army has also attempted to crack down on cross- border smuggling - a main source of revenue for the Taliban. All sorts of consumer goods, electronics, automotive spare parts, clothes, dinner sets, and fabrics, come into Pakistan via Afghanistan on trucks, camels, and donkeys. While the Taliban has strict prohibitions against illegal drug use, Afghanistan is also a leading producer and exporter of opium.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society