The headbands were flimsy, just strips of white cloth tied across demonstrators’ foreheads with slogans written in black ink. The most popular slogan was “Long Live Osama,” though others said “Death to America” and—simplicity itself—”Jihad.”
The headgear was worn Friday at an anti-U.S. rally in Peshawar, the chaotic Pakistani city in the shadow of the Khyber Pass and within shelling reach of Afghanistan (a relevant measure of distance because the Taliban have threatened to attack Pakistan if it supports U.S. military action). The men with the headbands were followers of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban politician here, and several thousand of them marched through the city’s central bazaar, assembling at a square underneath an “Always Coca-Cola” billboard.
The jihad slogans were familiar. Much newer was the theory propounded by Fazlur Rehman: that the assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of Israel. Fazlur Rehman, wearing a yellow turban, told the crowd that 4,000 Jews who worked in the Trade Center did not show up on the fateful Tuesday because they were tipped off about the imminent destruction of their workplace. “Osama is an individual who doesn’t have the resources to arrange this attack,” he shouted from the roof of a red truck. “Israel is behind it.”
A few minutes later, an effigy of President Bush was torched, partly for the benefit of foreign TV crews: It’s their money shot. Despite the fiery headbands and flaming president, the crowd was well-mannered, especially with foreign journalists. Curiously, Bush’s heart was marked by a Yankees “NY” emblem; perhaps the effigy designer was a Mets fan.
Although the Israel-destroyed-the-World-Trade-Center theory is absurd, most people I speak to in Pakistan believe it. It’s not just the headband rabble who sense the hand of the Mossad at work. I even heard the conspiracy theory during a visit to the posh Islamabad home of Ijzal ul-Haq, vice president of a major political party. As it happens, Ijzal ul-Haq is also the son of Pakistan’s late military dictator Zia ul-Haq; an oil portrait of the old man hangs a few feet from the front door.
Ijzal, who was educated at Southern Illinois University and worked for Bank of America for more than a decade, believes a government had to be involved because the attacks were too sophisticated for the likes of Osama Bin Laden. I asked which governments might have been responsible.
“It is just a wild guess,” he replied. “It could be somebody who wants to take revenge on the Muslims.”
“Could be. They’re taking full advantage of it. They want to totally alienate the Palestinians from the rest of the world. … Time will tell, but the people who are being targeted are not behind it.”
Here’s the truly curious thing: Ijzal, like many the-Mossad-may-have-done-it Pakistanis, isn’t howling about the injustice of a potential U.S. attack on innocent Afghanistan. Like everyone else, he knows Pakistan faces a stark choice—stand with the Taliban and share their fate or side with America and enjoy the benefits thereof. It’s not much of a choice, actually. Few Pakistanis will miss the Taliban regime, often viewed as an embarrassment to Islam and to Pakistan, which supported the mullahs in Kabul and Kandahar until a week ago.
As a result, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, may survive the crisis. He has offered Pakistani airspace to U.S. military flights, as well as intelligence information and unspecified “logistical” help, which could mean hosting U.S. troops. So far, public opposition has not gotten out of hand. The demo I attended disbanded with the calm of a low-scoring game between NFL cellar teams. Tempers will be hotter if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s police and military know how to use their batons and rifles.
The first political payoff for Gen. Musharraf came over the weekend, when the Bush administration announced it was lifting sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India when both exploded nuclear weapons. Gen. Musharraf will likely reap more rewards in the weeks and months to come; he undoubtedly hopes for a tilt in Pakistan’s favor over the perpetual crisis in Indian-ruled Kashmir. For the moment, it’s hard to hear a bad word in diplomatic circles about Pakistan’s somber military ruler. “The government is working a hell of a lot better than it was before the coup,” an approving diplomat told me the other day. “Musharraf is pretty darn good. He’s doing the right things, though it’s unfortunate that he happens to be a general and that he was put in power through a coup.”
This is the new New World Order, and the fact that our man in Islamabad wears a khaki uniform and overturned an elected government (though not a very effective one) is of little import. For now, democratization in Pakistan takes a back seat to security for America. That’s likely justified for a while, so don’t expect to hear any lectures from Washington about the need for ending military rule in Pakistan. On the other hand, if you listen closely you may hear quite a bit from Pakistan about the Mossad’s role in attacking the heart of American capitalism.