Pakistan: Friendly Foe; Angry Ally

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad, Pakistan there has been much discussion about the Pakistanis and just how much their military and security forces knew about where the terrorist leader was hiding.

Questions have been raised about how much the Pakistani’s can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to Muslim terrorists who without doubt populate their country.

Most recently the U.S. has asked Pakistan for access to Bin Laden’s three widows and any intelligence materials that the Navy SEALS may have left behind in the house where the leader of Al Qaeda terrorist was hiding.

Don’t hold your breath. The women along with several children were picked up by Pakistani authorities and are now in custody somewhere in Pakistan. If U.S. authorities ever get to interview the three widows and any other occupants of the house where Bin Laden was hiding it will be a miracle. In the meantime Pakistan is depriving American officials of potentially valuable intelligence–intelligence that could forestall another terrorist attack somewhere in the world.

It is patently obvious that someone somewhere in the Pakistani military hierarchy not only knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts but was probably aiding him in his efforts to remain hidden from CIA operatives in Pakistan.

The fact is Pakistan is a nation ruled less by political expediency than by religious zeal. The biggest challenge facing Pakistan’s national security establishment is to recognize how continuing links to extremist groups mortgage Pakistan’s future. Don’t expect a change in Pakistan’s ties to the Afghan Taliban, but this would be a good time for Pakistan’s military leaders to re-think any ties they may still have to the remnants of al-Qaeda within their country.

Once again, don’t hold your breath. The Taliban and al-Qaeda resonate strongly with fundamental Islamists in Pakistan, of which there are millions. These are the same people who are out in the streets of Islamabad shouting “Death to America” and “Death to the Infidel Invaders” in the wake of Bin Laden’s demise.

The fact is fundamental Muslims such as the Taliban and their Pakistani followers who oppose any form of democratic government and who support the continued suppression of women are not in agreement with Western ideas of free speech, freedom of religion, or other forms of free expression.

In that respect not much has changed since I first traveled on Pakistan on assignment for the Chicago Tribune. That was in 1987 and I was in Pakistan to work on a series of stories about the Mujahedeen guerillas who were engaged in a long and bloody struggle with Russian invaders. After spending some time in Islamabad getting briefed by various diplomatic missions I set off on the Grand Trunk Road for Peshawar, the ancient city at the mouth of the Khyber Pass.

I hired a car and driver and during the 90 mile drive along a road that has been in use since the British Raj I was able to get some idea of what the Pakistanis think of the West in general and the United States in particular. My driver was a fellow named Haaroon Kakar–an excellent English speaker who had worked for many visiting journalists.

Haaroon had been instrumental in helping me meet up with some local Mujahedeen and was taking me to Peshawar so I could link up with a guerilla unit that moved at will between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the intervening years nothing has changed–only the names. Today, it is no longer the Mujahedeen that moves with relative impunity across the Pakistani-Afghani border, it is the Taliban.

As we drove along the Grand Trunk Road, which now has been replaced in part by the new six-lane M-1, I marveled at how well Haaroon was able to elude the scrum of camels and cattle that meandered along the highway at will–not to mention the ancient trucks and cars that grunted along spewing thick clouds of black and blue smoke.

“Did you know that Alexander the Great came along this road in 326 BC?” Haaroon asked as he deftly avoided a cart powered by a struggling donkey and a multi-colored bus whose roof was populated by some dozen riders unable to find a seat inside.

At this point nothing along the Grand Trunk Road surprised me any longer–not even the fact that in Peshawar there was actually a Sultan of Swat. And here I always thought that appellation was only Babe Ruth’s.

As we made our way west away from Islamabad, I asked Haaroon what he thought of Americans. That was a mistake.

“They are OK, I guess–for unbelievers.”

“Unbelievers?” I responded.

“Yes, you are not Muslim are you?”

“No, I am not,” I answered.

“Then you are an unbeliever. Only Muslims know the true God.”

“I see,” I said, not wanting to enter into a discussion about religion or politics–two topics that could get your skull decorated with a scimitar in this part of the world.

Haaroon was not finished with this theme, however.

“Why do America and Europe allow their women to behave like prostitutes?” he asked.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that question, so I responded with another question.

“How do you mean?”

“Look at how you allow your women to dress–like tarts,” he countered.

“Believe me, there is no question of men telling women how to dress in America,” I said. “They dress the way they want to.”

“Well, that’s the problem isn’t it?” Haaroon said. “Do you see Pakistani women going about in such disgraceful attire?”

I responded that not only did I not see any Pakistani women wandering around in risqué attire; I didn’t even see many Pakistani women at all on the streets.

“That is because we don’t let them out of our houses unless they are accompanied by a male family member,” he said.

“Why?”

“Why must you ask…if we let them out by themselves other men would, how do you say…screw them,” Haaroon insisted.

“Are we talking about religion here or slavery?” I asked. “Don’t you think Pakistani women can be trusted to venture outside their homes?” I wondered if Haaroon had a mini scimitar in the front seat that I couldn’t see.

Haaroon paused before answering. “Our women are not slaves…we are protecting them against temptation and vice. You Americans no longer protect your women. And that is why they are all being raped.”

“What?” I was getting irritated. “Where do you get such rubbish?”

“We see it in the movies and on television every night,” he said. He then rattled off a few cops and robbers shows and films that he assumed were accurate portrayals of American life.

“You are talking about fiction, entertainment…”

Haaroon jumped in before I could finish my response.

“Are these films and shows untrue then?” he asked.

“There is some truth to them, but they are mostly gross exaggerations of what happens in America,” I said. “I am sure you have crime in Pakistan, but it is not constant and omnipresent is it?”

After I explained what omnipresent meant, he seemed to agree. Then he insisted that if American women at least were compelled to wear burkas they would be safer on American streets.

Somehow I was not convinced.

Nor am I convinced today that Pakistan will behave rationally in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid and allow Washington access to critical intelligence left behind in Bin Laden’s lair. Some of the information the Seals acquired in Abbottabad is likely to show that under Pakistani protection Bin Laden continued to plot and scheme against the United States, Europe and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

I wonder what Haaroon would make of that?

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