The Breakfast Table

Do the Right Thing in Pakistan

Dear Steve:

Wow, I’m still reeling over yesterday’s military coup in Pakistan. Less than two weeks ago, my film critic pal and I were quaffing sodas (no beers in this Islamic republic, remember?) poolside at the Pearl Continental Hotel in downtown Rawalpindi, running around Gilgit in disputed Kashmir Province and fending off aggressive beggars on the overnight sleeper train to Karachi. Certainly there were lots of signs of political and economic instability: Some of the hotels recommended in our Lonely Planet guide had closed in the last year, inflation was literally eating away the rupee by the hour, and Pakistanis, described universally as cheery to the point of being irritating, were cranky and mean–especially when they heard our American twangs.

But as I reported on my radio show for the first time back then, the big news is that the Pakistani government has apparently signed a devil’s bargain with the militant Taliban from neighboring Afghanistan. They’ve opened the border between Afghanistan and Pakistani-held Kashmir to let mujahadeen guerillas in to fight the Indians all summer long. The Taliban, who’ve earned a reputation as the new Khmer Rouge by stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women, aren’t the most subtle guys in the world–heavily armed goons have set up checkpoints along the main highway between Kashmir and China and now occupy between a third and half of Kashmir on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control; the only thing saving Cole and me from a night as the star attraction at the Talidrome was our bus’s own heavily armed guard.

That same week, two major Pakistani political parties called for Taliban-style rule in Pakistan to bring stability and “real” Islam to the masses. What you have to understand about Pakistan is that it’s a democracy in name only; even before yesterday it was a barely disguised military junta backed with American tax dollars. (Are we ever not on the wrong side overseas?) Now the Taliban are trying to take over Pakistan, an incredibly strategic juncture between East and West, continent and subcontinent. The State Department, by backing the coup, is defending the very same regime that has invited the Taliban into its territory–and setting us up for a potential nuclear hot flash in a big way. Having just returned from Pakistan, I am very seriously frightened, despite today’s insipid headlines saying that things are peaceful; if you’d seen what I’d just seen, you’d feel the same way. The truth is, this is the calm before the shit-storm.

So what to do? The Clinton administration ought to break off formal diplomatic ties with this illegal military government until a true democratic regime comes to power. Right now, the military runs everything from road repair to tax collection, and there’s no room for free speech in such a place. As they said back in the ‘60s, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, and we’re clearly a big part of the problem. But don’t count on the Clintonites to do the right thing; they never ever do.

Very truly yours,