A Window of Opportunity

Pakistanis ready to walk fine line for U.S. effort

Chance for economic growth a strong draw for many

KHYBER TRIBAL AREA, Pakistan – Mohammad Arif can operate.

As his friend Ali Shah Kazmi guides a car among armed Afghan
smugglers openly selling hashish and heroin, carpet factory owner
Arif heads for a towering adobe warehouse crammed with Chinese
televisions trucked in through Afghanistan.

“No tax here,” Arif says with a smile as one of his
Kalashnikov-toting warehouse guards approaches. The laws of
Pakistan don’t reach into this tribal land near the border.

Arif figures he’ll operate even better under the emerging
alliance between his country and the United States. Now, says
Kazmi, a gem dealer who recently displayed emeralds at a Denver
exhibition, America “will give us more importance.”

It’s hard to envision a partnership that holds more promise
or peril than the one with Pakistan, a country filled with
economic ache and open drug markets guarded by machine guns.

The iffy alliance has advanced in recent days.

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin announced in
Islamabad, the capital, that terms would be eased for $379 million
of the $3 billion Pakistan owes the U.S. government. This followed
President Bush’s weekend lifting of sanctions imposed following
Pakistan’s test detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1998.

More inducements may be coming.

“At this critical time, we expect our already strong trade
relations to prosper,” Chamberlin said.

For a country of 141 million with a literacy rate of not
quite 38 percent, that’s tempting.

“Our ultimate objective is to get economic growth and reduce
poverty,” Pakistan government economist Nawid Ahsan said. Pakistan
“wants to be considered a reliable supplier of goods and services
to the U.S. market.”

Under the Bush administration’s push for international
support in its war on terrorism, Pakistan – until recently a
backer of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban – has joined in demanding
that the fundamentalist Muslim leaders give up Osama bin Laden,
the man the U.S. holds responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The quest for support is taking U.S. emissaries to places
such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, which many Americans
know only as splotches on a map or as fabled lands of
saber-wielding khans.

Central to the U.S. strategy is Pakistan, which shares a
1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to
be hiding.

Pakistan offers airfields, roads and other facilities more
modern than in most countries in the region. A U.S. negotiating
team, described by Pakistani officials as a trio of military
officers, arrived Monday. U.S. officials simply said the group was

Pakistan also beckons symbolically as a Muslim country that
in the past has helped – and received help from – the Taliban. The
country, like the United States, assisted the victory of bin Laden
and Afghan tribesmen against Soviet occupation in the 1970s and

Today, not everyone here is as interested as Arif and Kazmi,
and the officials in Islamabad, in working with the United States.

On Monday in the Dhoke Najoo mud-brick shanty community near
Rawalpindi, computer science graduate Khurram Shazad, 21, warned
that America’s well-intentioned war on terrorism could degenerate
into “a nightmare for humanity” unless military efforts are precise.

And Americans shouldn’t worry whether they can trust
Pakistan, Shazad said. “Better to ask: How reliable is America as
a partner? Because America abandoned us after the Cold War.”

A teacher in the nearby Dhoke Najoo mosque, who identified
himself only as Gulistan, emphasized that “Islam doesn’t allow

But he added with greater emphasis: “A Muslim government is
not allowed to stand with non-Muslims against Muslims.”

In his Islamabad ice cream parlor, Yummy’s, Malik Sohail
Hussain said that economic and religious issues are prompting
Pakistan to side with the United States.

“The Afghans are eating us up – all our energies are fixed on
them,” Hussain, an official of the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce,
told the Associated Press. Just as in the Persian Gulf War, he
said, nations must now take sides and fight because of extremists
who twist Islam to their own purposes.

“We want to live peacefully like America, like Europe, to be
a loving place,” Hussain said.

On the streets of America’s newfound ally, towering trucks
and buses teeter while traveling at breakneck speed down roadways
clogged with horse-drawn carts and wandering cows. Open-faced
shops blare drumbeats and songs in Urdu, the national language.

All is punctated by round discs of nan bread, tea and Muslim
prayers five times a day.

Giant rocks partially melted in Pakistan’s 1998 underground
nuclear test blast are displayed as monuments in cities.

The clan-driven political system regularly produces bloodshed.

Set up by former colonial power Great Britain as a home
for Muslims in 1947, Pakistan has gained and lost prime ministers
rapidly, with frequent military takeovers – including the one that
installed ruling Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Opposition to the U.S.-Pakistan partnership has ignited
street protests, prompting a police crackdown.

Riding through an Afghan neighborhood in Peshawar recently
with his partner Kazmi at the wheel, Arif saw a rock ping off the
windshield. Then another. Something thudded against the rear
fender. A crowd of boys was swarming.

Kazmi stopped. Arif got out and faced down the barefoot boys.

“Are you crazy?” he yelled as some ran away.

They are angry, Arif said, “because of the war with Osama and

U.S. officials insist they aren’t pressuring Pakistan to do
anything it doesn’t want to do. “We do not make demands of our
friends,” Ambassador Chamberlin said at a news conference.

But three hours’ drive away, near Peshawar, Arif and Ali
Kazmi had heard otherwise.

They recently took a drive – clicking in a Ricky Martin
cassette – north through Pushtun country to Charsadda, where they
met with Sangeen Wali Khan. He’s president of the district
People’s National Party and son of the ruling family of the
Pushtun people who live on both sides of the border.

On a veranda looking out at his garden while servants brought
food, Sangeen gave an account of how Pakistan came on board for
the U.S. effort. He said he heard it from his brother, a national
party chief, from whom Musharraf had sought advice on the matter.

Pakistan agreed to help the United States, he said, after
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Musharraf and told
him to choose quickly between Pakistan moving into the 21st
century or returning to the Stone Age.

“We have no choice,” Sangeen said. “This country can’t afford
any more conflicts. … If we don’t have too many innocent people
dying, then I don’t think we’re going to have too much trouble.”

Sangeen retired to the shade of wild roses and bougainvillea,
lit a cigarette and blew smoke.

Arif and Kazmi, with Ricky Martin singing again, headed back
down the road to Peshawar – through sugar cane fields, past
barefoot peasants selling stones, across the muddy Kabul River –
to marble-floored mansions.