ISLAMABAD -- The military government in Pakistan is caught in a catch-22. The Bush administration expects Pakistan to cooperate fully in tracking down the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, whom it believes are hiding in Afghanistan. But right-wing religious parties warn of a severe backlash at home if Islamabad allows the use of the country's territory for any aggression against the Taliban administration.
"Any attack on Afghanistan or against Osama bin Laden will be considered an attack against the sovereignty of Pakistan and conspiracy against the defense and nuclear capability of the country," said Maulana Samiul Haq, who heads the right-wing Jamiat Ulema Islam (Party of Muslim Scholars).
The Maulana warned that the Pakistani people would overthrow the military government if it allowed U.S. forces to use the country as a staging ground for a strike against Afghanistan.
According to government sources, the United States considers Pakistan's "full cooperation" crucial in a conclusive battle against international terrorism. Pakistan, along with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan.
"The U.S. has asked us to close our borders with Afghanistan, stop supplying fuel to the Taliban government, provide any information on suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and allow U.S. warplanes access to Pakistani air space in the event of a military strike," said an official source who asked to remain anonymous.
The Pakistani government, however, has not publicly announced what Washington has conveyed to Islamabad early Friday morning, fearing that it may bring people to the streets.
Although Pakistani President General Pervez Musharrafhas assured "full cooperation" to the Bush administration in his communications with Secretary of State Colin Powell, he has not indicated what "full cooperation" entails.
Political analysts say that Pakistan's military rulers face their toughest challenge since ousting a democratic government in a bloodless coup in 1999.
"The government is stranded between the devil and the deep blue sea," said Mayed Ali, a political analyst. "Gen. Musharraf is in an awkward situation, where he is bound to get a backlash on adoption of either option [cooperation or non-cooperation with the United States]."
"People in Pakistan will not allow the use of Pakistani soil against Afghanistan. I hope the military leadership will respect the expectations of the people to avoid a backlash," said influential right-wing leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who heads his own faction of Jamiat Ulema Islam.
The public mood here mirrors closely that of the right-wing religious parties. "We will not tolerate the use of our country for the killing of fellow Muslims," said Nadia Afzal, who teaches at a local school.
Most people interviewed on the street said that the vulnerability of the American people is due to Washington's flawed policies towards the Islamic world and developing countries.
Disturbed by U.S. policy toward Palestine and its continuing air strikes against Iraq, Amna Sajjad, a student of Islamic University in Islamabad, said the United States itself is a terrorist nation. "Are they not terrorists to have made the Iraqi nation suffer, where innocent civilians, babies and women are dying?" she asked. "Most certainly, the Pakistani nation will not
want to help the United States to terrorize already suffering people in Afghanistan who are dying of hunger and disease."
Yet non-cooperation with Washington could result in strict economic sanctions and place Pakistan on America's list of terrorist countries.
Pakistan already faces numerous sanctions imposed after its nuclear tests in 1998. The country is burdened by a staggering $35 billion in external loans and an even higher domestic debt. The Bush administration has reportedly offered to lift sanctions if Islamabad cooperates in war against terrorism. This bait may be attractive, if difficult to swallow.
The best bet for the military government, political analysts suggest, is to stay away from any action against Afghanistan and convince the United States to launch any such response from its naval carriers.
"Pakistan at most could offer intelligence assistance to the U.S. government for tracking down hideouts of Osama and other terrorists," one analyst commented. "But before that, Pakistan should try to make the Taliban hand over Osama, or convince Osama to surrender in the larger interest of Afghanistan and the region.