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Pakistan offers to help U.S., up to a point

Washington has reportedly asked for a sealed border and the use of airspace.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's military commanders said Thursday they are willing to meet some U.S. demands for assistance in striking at terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his associates in neighboring Afghanistan, but they raised concerns that high-profile cooperation by Pakistan could set off civil unrest here.

Officials said they would open Pakistani airspace for U.S. missile or aerial strikes against targets in Afghanistan, where bin Laden, a suspect in Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, is being harbored by that country's ruling Taleban Islamic militia. But they said they oppose allowing U.S. ground troops or Special Forces teams on Pakistani soil because they fear militant Islamic groups in Pakistan would react violently to an American troop presence. It would be virtually impossible, they said, to provide adequate security for foreign troops.

The United States also reportedly has asked Pakistan to seal its 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, with particular emphasis on cutting off fuel supplies. Even if Pakistan authorities agreed to the demand, officials here said, it couldn't be enforced because the border runs mostly through deserts and mountains.

The Pakistani military officials, speaking to the Washington Post on the condition that their names not be used, were responding to reports of requests for assistance that, according to officials here and in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage delivered Thursday to Pakistani authorities in Washington.

In the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, U.S. diplomats and other officials have been involved in intensive discussions with their Pakistani counterparts because of Pakistan's ties with the Taleban, the radical Islamic movement that controls most of Afghanistan. Bin Laden is a close ally of the Taleban, providing financial support and using Afghan territory as a base for training terrorists, intelligence analysts say.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, assured the United States Thursday of "our unstinted cooperation in the fight against terrorism."

New U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain, after presenting her credentials Thursday morning, met with Musharraf in a private 40-minute session, which she described as "frank and forthright."

"We had a meeting of minds," she said. "The president pledged his cooperation."

Musharraf also spoke by telephone with Secretary of State Colin Powell. A State Department official called the discussion positive and reported that Musharraf said he looked forward to reviewing the list of American demands.

But in closed meetings among Pakistan's top officials, the issues remain far murkier. Since the military ousted Pakistan's elected government in October 1999, the country is now run by the same institutions that have helped nurture, arm and advise the Taleban since its creation in 1994. In addition, many of Pakistan's generals share the Taleban's severe interpretation of Islam and are opposed to military action against the movement.

Even among those in the military leadership who are not so closely allied with the Taleban, there's widespread fear that religious students and organizations within this Islamic country would react violently if the government openly provided assistance for military operations against Bin Laden or the Taleban.

The Taleban's origins can be traced to the thousands of religious schools in Pakistan that teach its interpretation of Islam, and such schools continue to serve as recruiting grounds for the movement's military forces.

Military commanders have scheduled an emergency meeting with Musharraf this morning to weigh options for cooperating with the United States against internal security concerns.

American officials said Pakistan had several incentives to cooperate with the United States. These include Islamabad's interest in seeing the United States lift sanctions that were imposed after Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon in 1998 and Musharraf took power the following year. Those sanctions have been under review by the Bush administration.

Though administration officials have spoken ominously about the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations if Islamabad doesn't cooperate in any attack on bin Laden, Powell sought to frame the ongoing discussions with Pakistani officials, and in particular with Musharraf, in cordial terms. He labeled the exchanges as "sober, responsible."

However, if Pakistan does not provide the assistance the United States seeks, the consequences could be very painful.

Some Pakistani editors and scholars say that if there is credible evidence that bin Laden is responsible for Tuesday's terrorist attacks, the military regime will have little choice but to help the Americans. Defiance would risk an economic meltdown and further isolation for the government.

As a last resort, it appeared clear that the use of force against identified terrorist groups in Pakistan might be contemplated. "Pakistan can be a full partner, or a target, and it doesn't really have a third option," said Barnett Rubin, a political scientist at New York University. "There is no more being a friend of the United States and of Osama bin Laden."

At the White House on Thursday, President Bush told reporters: "I would refer you to the statements that the Pakistani leader gave about ... his willingness to work with the United States. And I appreciated that statement. And now we'll just find out what that means, won't we?"

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