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Saturday, 15 September, 2001, 01:56 GMT 02:56 UK
Analysis: Pakistan's dilemma
Pakistan
Public opinion in Pakistan is a crucial factor
By Susannah Price in Islamabad

The President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, has repeatedly stated that his government is fully committed to backing the United States following Tuesday's attacks on Washington and New York.

Shortly after the news of suicide strikes General Musharraf said his government "strongly condemned this most brutal and horrible act of terror and violence" adding that the world should unite to fight terrorism.

President Musharraf
President Musharraf is in a difficult position
But the main suspect behind the atrocity is the Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden who lives in neighbouring Afghanistan as a guest of the Taleban authorities.

The Taleban has its roots in the religious schools inside Pakistan, which remains the movement's strongest supporter. It is one of only three governments to officially recognise it.

Many have therefore been surprised at the strength of the government's commitment to backing the United States.

Strained relations

Although the two countries have been close, particularly in supporting the Islamic fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, their relationship has been more turbulent in recent years.

Tapes of Osama Bin Laden's speeches on sale in Islamabad
Tapes of Osama Bin Laden's speeches on sale in Islamabad

The United States has been widely accused by Pakistanis of being anti-Muslim particularly due to its backing for Israel in the Middle East conflict.

It was also seen as being the main force responsible for the imposition of UN sanctions against Iraq and the Taleban which have provoked anger in Pakistan.

The United States has also penalised Pakistan by imposing sanctions after its nuclear tests and then following the 1999 coup which brought General Musharraf to power.

The American Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested these could provide some leverage in bringing Pakistan on board - but they have also fuelled resentment against the superpower.

Test

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman has suggested that the government is willing to share intelligence with the United States - presumably about the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden.

Nairobi embassy attack aftermath
Pakistan condemned US reprisals for the 1998 embassy attacks

But the real test will come when it is asked to take more serious action.

Up to now the government has sidestepped questions on what other kind of help it can provide saying it is too soon to tell.

The least contentious move would be to offer the use of Pakistani airspace for any missile attack along the lines of those carried out in 1998 following the bombing of US embassies in East Africa.

At that time Pakistan was not consulted and lodged a protest afterwards. But the strength of feeling in the US has suggested to many that this time the retaliation will go much further.

Pakistan could be used as an airbase for the Americans to bomb Afghanistan - or some have even suggested that Washington could carry out a highly risky land attack from Pakistan.

Taleban militia
Taleban militia would fiercely resist a ground invasion

Islamabad airport was closed for a few hours on Friday morning provoking speculation that some preparations were already underway - although the authorities maintained it was for routine air force exercises.

But this kind of cooperation could have serious repercussions for the government.

It would obviously provoke a furious reaction from religious and hardline groups who back the Taleban and who have been relatively quiet up to now.

The backlash could go further - many ordinary people say they oppose Pakistan's involvement in what they see as America's problem.

'No evidence'

The issue of Osama Bin Laden has hindered relations between Pakistan and Taleban - Pakistan has in the past tried and failed to persuade the Taleban to extradite him.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden: The world's most wanted terrorism suspect

But Pakistan still says there is no evidence to link him to the attacks and it will want some proof which could help convince public opinion before committing itself to any drastic step.

Some analysts believe that Pakistan may find it easier to sell the idea of backing military action against Afghanistan if it is joined by other Muslim countries.

If there were fully fledged Muslim support, possibly from the Organisation of Islamic Conference, ordinary Pakistanis might find it easier to support such a move.

The government has some difficult choices to make and will have to weigh up pressure internally as well as from the international community before committing itself to helping to attack its neighbour.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Simpson
"Pakistan's problems could be only just beginning"
See also:

14 Sep 01 | Americas
In pictures: A world in mourning
14 Sep 01 | Americas
Nineteen hijack suspects named
14 Sep 01 | Europe
Europe mourns with US
14 Sep 01 | Africa
Kenya mourns with US
14 Sep 01 | Europe
FBI 'ignored leads'
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban defiant over Bin Laden
14 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
S Korea mourns US victims
13 Sep 01 | Americas
Q&A: Striking back
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