Foreign visitors to Afghanistan before l973 remember the country as both peaceful and on the road to progress. A Pushtun royalty had been ruling the country for two centuries against a background of inter-ethnic tranquillity. Kabul was an attractive city where all major Afghan ethnic groups coalesced. They were Afghans first, Pushtuns, Uzbeks and Tajeks later. The language in Kabul was Dari, a variant of Persian. It was the language of the Tajik minority, as well as that of Pushtun royalty (Durranis). The Shi'ite Hazaras, who are now regarded with hatred by the Taliban and vice versa, are also conversant with Dari. The community in Kabul was considered far more advanced than other Afghan ethnic groups in terms of culture and education. Yes, educated Afghan women in those days wore skirts. The Russians were building dams and roads in the country while the Germans and French focused on building schools and universities. For the French, archaeological excavation was another passionate pursuit. The Americans, one felt, had yet to set foot on Afghan soil. The former Soviet Union wanted Afghanistan, given its proximity to Central Asia, under its thumb. While it tolerated the European presence, it was distrustful of the Americans.

    We Pakistanis, including this writer, would go to Kabul to shop and to watch movies from India and elsewhere. For us it meant an escape from the dreary life in Pakistan's parched plains. The Afghans traditionally loved commerce, a passion that has now sadly been overtaken by war-making instincts. Kabul had a sprinkling of Sikh traders and shopkeepers, which indicated to outsiders like us that free trade would ultimately catapult the Afghans to a Hong Kong-like environment. The fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked nation, whereas Hong Kong a bustling port, did not weigh in our calculation at the time.

    Until 1973, Afghanistan and Pakistan regarded each other with suspicion, stemming mainly from Pakistan's fears about its territorial integrity. Pakistan's Pushtun population along the Afghan border has long been a restive community. Historically defiant to all central rules and foreign invaders, this population felt closer to Afghanistan, where Pushtuns are a predominant group. The first 25 years of Pakistan's independence echoed with a demand for greater autonomy, if not outright freedom, for its Pushtun-dominated NWFP province. The rulers in Kabul seemed to encourage the secessionist sentiments among the Pakistan's Pushtuns, which riled the central government in Pakistan. That Kabul in those days maintained rather close and cordial ties with India was another worrisome factor for Pakistan. In short, Pakistan in those days was caught in a two-front situation.

    All of this changed dramatically when the Soviets blundered into Afghanistan in 1979. The United States became a major player in this country where it had not even played a minimal role; the Pakistanis piggybacked, barely concealing their joy. The Saudis, who now dread Osama bin Laden, were in tow. The United States-Pakistan-Saudi axis was a significant factor in the creation of a gargantuan network of Madrassa (seminaries) both in Afghanistan and Pakistan where young men were indoctrinated with what is now referred to as the militant Islamic ideology. The United States pumped billions into the country to get the Soviets bogged down, demoralized and, ultimately, defeated. Pakistan not only apparently countered its two-front situation; indeed, it got a post-Soviet Afghanistan on its side against India. Pakistan's national security establishment has long worried about the country's lack of strategic depth vis-à-vis India. A conforming Afghanistan seemed to have provided a sense of security to Pakistan's rulers. The Taliban had a direct link with the intensification of rebellious sentiments in Kashmir in recent times. Moreover, some militia outfits based in Pakistan, with close religious and ideological ties to the Taliban, have created a perennial tension with India because of their covert activities in Kashmir. The lastest attack on Indian parliament by a group of extremists, which has brought two subcontinetnal rivals to the brink of nuclear war, indicates the nexus between the Taliban and Pakistan's fanatics. More importanaly, it shows to the world that if the seminaries in Pakistan are not cleansed effectively, efforts for a long-term peace in Afghanistan will remain far from fulfilled.

    Once the Soviet Union was humbled in Afghanistan in the 80's, the Americans pulled out, leaving behind a deeply scarred nation, bristling with arms and warlords. The Afghans, who with American help had defeated a super power, split into opposing factions on the bidding of neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran. These two countries have historically been fraternal neighbors, but this special relationship has been overshadowed in recent years by overt hostility. Iran chose to support the Northern Alliance-now a proxy force for the Americans-while Pakistan provided massive training and logistic support to the Taliban. The Saudis provided the cash, for they had a deep hatred of Iran at the time. To a great extent, the mutually exclusive roles of Iran and Pakistan in Afghanistan have triggered a wave of sectarianism in Pakistan, pitting Sunni Muslims against the Shi'te Muslims. The Saudis have now distanced themselves from the Taliban; but most of us know that their militia is propelled by a Sunni extremism that is generally associated with the oil-rich kingdom.

    There have been other dangerous spin-offs as well. For instance, in some parts of Pakistan's Pushtun-dominated areas bordering Afghanistan, Sunni and Shi'te Muslims have fought each other with guns and rockets. The cleavage in Afghanistan is reflected among Pakistan's Pushtuns. This phenomenon is now chillingly referred to as the Talibanization of Pakistani society. The thinking Pakistanis believe that the collapse of the Taliban regime under the impact of American bombing would be a highly welcome development in that it would water down the sectarian contradiction in their country.

    While the war against the Soviet Union raged in Afghanistan, the lack of morality in American foreign policy was once again underlined by Washington's support for Pakistan's most reviled dictator, General Ziaul Haq. He throttled democracy for ten years in Pakistan, in addition to fueling religious frenzy. The Americans chose to ignore the dictator's trampling of democratic forces and the launching of the nuclear weapons program. American strategic interests of the time had little or no room for democracy or other moral principles. To this day, educated Pakistanis believe that the United States has had a hand in strengthening religious extremism in their country and the region.

    In the wake of the September 11 events, Pakistan, under General Musharraf, has once again acquired the dubious status of a front-line state. In the cold war era, it was a front-line state against the Soviet Union; now it has been assigned the role of a front-line state against terrorism.

    This is a moment of deep reflection and worry for most Pakistanis. General Musharraf usurped power through a coup. Until September 11, he was widely chastised by the international community for his annihilation of democracy, however flawed, in Pakistan. Washington had indicated its profound displeasure and had applied intense pressure on him to announce elections. Now, under the changed situation, he is an important ally for the Americans. His willingness to bend before American pressure transformed him into a dependable friend. Consequently, the United States has now few other friends in Pakistan. Had it established links with leaders of civil society in Pakistan instead of befriending a dictator, there would have been a greater understanding of what it is now doing in Afghanistan.

    Pakistan has, fortunately, a small population of fanatical elements. While the religious parties and groups have invariably received a drubbing during elections, they have strong street power. They can command their workers on to the streets, workers who are so committed to their cause that they are willing to lay down their lives. This makes the difference as opposed to the democratic and moderate people who despise violence.

    The reality, however, is that Musharraf has replaced all dissenting generals in the army with his loyalists so that there is no opposition to his rule from any quarter. This is paving the road toward a new phase of soulless authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Washington seems to approve of anything that will help him strengthen his grip on power. He is now called the indispensable ally. It is incomprehensible that Washington also chose to ignore the killing of 20 Christians in Pakistan on October 28. The continuing support for the dictator, on the one hand, and the growing civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by the U.S. punitive actions, on the other, could alienate, if not radicalize, a large number of Pakistanis, including even those who have no sympathy for Osama bin Laden. It is good that the Voice of America is now broadcasting in Pushto to win over more and more Pushtun elements in Afghanistan. A smiliar move aimed at assuaging the mistrust of the estranged Pakistanis could bring some benefits. If General Musharraf acquired international recognition and legitimacy uner American patronage, he would delay democracy in Pakistan for another decade.

    It is fortunate that Hamed Karzai, who represents Pushtuns, is now the new leader of Afghanistan. The Pushtun population in Afghanistan and Pakistan will, no doubt, be mollified. The aura of invincibility surrounding Osama bin laden has now been shattered. Pushtuns have little respect for a man who is now being driven from one cave to another. Unfortunately, there can be no easy way out of Afghanistan's ethnic politics. One thing is certain: the Taliban are discredited in the eyes of all other Afghan factions. The kind of religious extremism they have imposed has not only proved to be their undoing but has also brought a level of misery to the Afghan people that is unparallel in their history.

    To avoid the fundamentalism of Taliban and create the kind community that lived in Afghanistan until 1973, the Americans and the United Nations must get down to the serious business of creating institutions. Pakistan, Iran and Russia ought to bear in mind that the time for brokering positions for their favorite Afghan groups has passed. The United States has already some strong leverage with the Northern Alliance, a combination of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras. The latter has grudgingly accepted Hamed Karzai as the leader of the interim government. Clearly, there are serious tensions within the new interim set-up along ethnic lines. Some arm-twisting by an international peace-making force should push the recalcitrants towards an enduring compromise for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

    It is abundantly clear that unless the new government in Afghanistan is decentralized in character it cannot succeed. As is the case with other developing nations, Afghanistan has been a victim of an overweening desire for a strong central authority. The international community would be right in demanding a greater autonomy for various regions in the country before it pours money for the building of roads, schools and hospitals.

    Afghanistan has suffered enormously and millions of Afghans have had to flee to neighboring countries. Most educated Afghans have emigrated to safer havens across the world. A major rehabilitation effort could coax them to return and help restore Kabul and other cities to their pre-war florescent and tolerant culture. Music and television have come back, for starters. Now it is up to Afghans themselves to decide whether they are prepared to say no to arms. At the same time the United States and others must settle into a prolonged reconstruction phase, while Iran, Pakistan and Russia should keep their hands off.

    Javid Nazir is a Michigan Journalism Fellow from Pakistan and former editor of the Frontier Post, a nonconformist newspaper in Lahore. He left Pakistan after a letter published in his paper angered religious extremists. He is now writing a book about religious minorities in Pakistan.