Afghanistan turns a corner

As war shifts, both relief and foreboding ripple from London to Islamabad.

For much of the past month, this busy corner of Islamabad's Aabpara market has been pulsating with thousands of furious Muslim conservatives, who burned effigies of President George Bush. Today, guava fruit sells better than posters of Osama bin Laden.

"Some people are very angry, but the whole of Pakistan is not angry about the change in the war," says Fraz Afzal, a Pakistani student gripping several computer textbooks. Now that the bombing has eased and the Taliban are on the run, he says, the Islamic fundamentalists have lost their vaunted heroes. "The Taliban are supposed to be fighting against the world, but they are escaping to the hills." He smirks. "This is not called fighting."

Across the Muslim world and beyond, there is a mixture of audible relief and subtle foreboding. In the international media, scenes of Afghan civilians in hospital beds have been replaced by portraits of jubiliant Afghan wedding parties and beard shaving.

In Europe, where public support for the war was slipping, Prime Minister Tony Blair is now receiving plaudits. In Germany, the turn of events is likely to sway the handful of pacifists who

were threatening to bring down the coalition government in a no-confidence vote today.

In Egypt, political moderates hope the government may now ease its restrictions on public expression. But in parts of the Middle East - Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq - there's concern that the war on terrorism may be heading their way.

Here in Pakistan, the apparent rout of the Taliban, and the scaling back of American bombing, have put a damper on the weekly anti-American street protests. But there's still concern that the political unrest in Pakistan won't fade away as quickly as the Taliban took to the hills.

In fact, there are clear signs that pro-Taliban or other religious extremist groups will continue their opposition to what they consider a hard-hearted anti-Muslim policy of America and her allies.

"The danger is now for Pakistan, because we'll have these [groups] to deal with," says a senior Pakistani military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They will be very surly, they will have weapons, they will have a friendly population in the madrassas [religious schools], and you'll never know how many there are. That's why it's very important that the United Nations and the US be very careful not to annoy the tribal people of Pakistan."

Indeed, few nations have experienced the public anger over this war more than Pakistan, Afghanistan's southern neighbor. With their 2,500-mile border and common religious, ethnic, and family ties with their Afghan neighbors, many Pakistanis violently opposed Pakistan's decision to join the US-led coalition against the Taliban. A relentless one-month-long American bombing campaign - seen here on daily TV broadcast of civilian casualties in Kabul and Jalalabad - broadened the field of protest to include middle-class professionals, a troubling sign for the stability of the regime of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Experts say there is still substantial support for the Taliban in the so-called tribal areas along the Afghan border, which are dominated by the same ethnic Pashtuns who make up the majority in Afghanistan and the top leadership of the Taliban.

"These fighters are now going to spread out in droves, with weapons, to all neighboring countries," warned an editorial in Pakistan's leading English newspaper, The News.

In Europe, where most nations gave verbal support to America's anti-Taliban war, the rout of Taliban forces has been especially sweet to Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who has been at the forefront of the military campaign against the former Afghan government. Even his political opponents joined in praising his efforts. "Clearly, what has happened in Afghanistan is a complete vindication of the strategy pursued by the coalition, led in great degree by the prime minister and the government," said opposition Conservative party leader Iain Duncan-Smith in Parliament on Wednesday.

Since Sept. 11, public opinion has remained squarely behind the prime minister, despite warnings by some critics that the bombing campaign would be counterproductive.

But the swiftness of the war has meant "there was not even time for the eating of words between the first and last editions of newspapers as Kabul fell," wrote columnist Polly Toynbee in the liberal daily The Guardian on Wednesday. "Never in the field of human conflict have so many experts of the highest renown been so thoroughly wrong."

The rout of the Taliban does not appear to have had a huge influence on German public opinion, which has been split fairly evenly down the middle. A poll published on Wednesday showed that 51 percent support the deployment of German soliders, with 46 percent opposed.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has taken the extraordinary measure of attaching the troop deployment issue to a vote of confidence in his coalition government today - a vote he is likely to survive now.

Still, the cerebral weekly Die Zeit warned: "Kabul has fallen, the Taliban are on the run, but there is no reason to celebrate - not in Afghanistan and not in Berlin.... The danger of a lengthy guerilla war cannot be ruled out."

Bärbel Wittek, a Berlin switchboard operator, says that Germans owe something to Americans for decades of US support. "If we're a NATO member, then we shouldn't stand back cowardly," she says. The middle-aged Berliner is unsqueamish about the possibility of German casualites. "Anybody who joins the military takes that risk," she says.

But in Europe there are clear reservations about the prospect that once military operations in Afghanistan are over, Washington might direct its bombers to other countries. "After Afghanistan, going after the remaining tentacles [of Al Quaeda] will be done in a very different way," says one senior British government source.

Consider the case of Lebanon, home of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, or Party of God.

In the now-peaceful streets of Beirut, many Lebanese have already looked beyond the Taliban's quick defeat to what they consider the next phase in the war on terror. For them, the end of a war in Afghanistan could mean the beginning of a war in Lebanon.

Already, Washington is gunning for Lebanon's Hizbullah organization, slapping an executive order on the group at the beginning of the month to freeze its assets. Lebanon faces the possibility of sanctions if it fails to comply with the order. But the Lebanese government considers Hizbullah a legitimate political party and resistance group.

George Bkassini, writing in Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, which is owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, asks whether Iraq would be the next Afghanistan. "The US-led Western offensive against Afghanistan is hardly over. But already Arab leaders are concerned about the next phase," the columnist said.

In fact, by yesterday, local media had dropped its heavy coverage of Afghan events and returned to reporting the fate of Hizbullah and the possibility of sanctions against Lebanon. Mr. Hariri is touring Europe to drum up sympathy for Beirut's point of view and to reiterate his support for a war on terror that differentiates between terrorism and legitimate resistance.

Neighboring Syria, the dominant powerbroker in Lebanon, is also looking beyond Afghanistan. Damascus supports Hizbullah and hosts several radical Palestinian groups, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is also subject to President Bush's executive order.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, there is both disappointment and hope.

"Nationalists and Islamists, I think, feel disappointed because they expected so much from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda," says Reda Helal, deputy editor of the government-backed Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram. For Egyptian moderates, he adds, the speed of the Northern Alliance is good news. That is because the government's repression of militant Islamic groups in Egypt has also stifled moderates who would like to push for greater democracy and respect for human rights, says Mr. Helal. Moderates thus have much to gain if the Islamist threat is undermined around the world. "If America succeeds in Afghanistan," he says, "I think it will be a defeat for Islamic violence."

"Most of the people in Kuwait are very happy" with the Northern Alliance advances, says Kuwait University political scientist Shamlan Al-Essa. Most surprising, he says, has been "the efficiency of the allied forces and the exposure of what the Taliban has been doing."

Even before Kabul fell, international television coverage illuminated life under the Taliban as never before. Dr. Essa cites in particular a recent documentary aired repeatedly on CNN and the BBC, which depicts Taliban executions and other human rights abuses. "Those were things we didn't know about."

The events of Sept. 11 and recent events in Afghanistan signal the end of extremism in the Arab world, Essa says.

Just as Israel's crushing defeat of Arab armies in 1967 meant the end of "pan-Arabism," he says, so Sept. 11 will undermine "pan-Islamism."

Reported by staff writers Peter Ford in London, Cameron W. Barr in Jerusalem, and special correspondents Lucian Kim in Berlin and Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, Lebanon.

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