Frontline World

PAKISTAN - On A Razor's Edge, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "On a Razor's Edge"

Assessing Musharraf's Predicament

The Brink of Peace

Reporting on the Nuclear Scandal

Background, Government, Issues

India/Pakistan Relations, Islamic Fundamentalism, Media Resources




Produced in Association with New York Times Television.


The Story
Crowd of men pray, The reporter: Obaid, Man in military uniform in front of gate

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Spring has arrived in Pakistan, and the season has brought a thaw in the Cold War between Pakistan and India, bitter enemies for more than 50 years. A train is now allowed to cross the border. FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sharmeen Obaid boards this "peace train" in India and travels home to Pakistan to see how people are reacting to the cautious attempts to settle differences between the two countries.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Obaid is now a graduate student at Stanford as well as a reporter for New York Times Television who has covered the dramatic political and social changes in Pakistan since 9/11 and the U.S. intervention in neighboring Afghanistan.

On the train Obaid meets a woman who is on her way to a reunion with her children and grandchildren in Pakistan. "I've prayed for the day the borders would open," she tells Obaid. As the train pulls into the city of Lahore, Pakistan, Obaid witnesses the meaning of reconciliation as long-separated families and friends embrace each other. All this is possible because of a historic handshake between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who agreed to begin peace talks in January 2004.

That night in Lahore, Obaid sees the start of Basant, a festival celebrating the advent of spring. Originally a Hindu holiday, Basant has long been embraced by Pakistan's Muslim majority. It is a time of kite flying, dancing, even drinking. As she wanders the gaily-lit streets at night, Obaid speaks with Pakistanis who tell her they are hopeful about the possibility of a real peace with India. But there is also a note of caution. "Ask me another time," an older steet vendor tells her. "If this interview is aired, we will both be jailed. This is Pakistan!"

Observing the mix of local and Western billboards, fast food outlets and banks in the city, Obaid describes Pakistan as "a country of secrets and paradoxes, still emerging from its recent past, before 9/11, when it was the Taliban's main supporter." She knows that her country is "determined to be part of the modern world," but finds itself at a "dangerous crossroads."

Obaid's first interview is with Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher of the Friday Times newspaper and a woman who thinks Pakistan is moving in a positive direction. "I may be being very unconventional here, but I'll say to you that 9/11 has been very good for Pakistan," Mohsin tells Obaid. "Suddenly, overnight, we had to choose which way to go. The state decided to dump the Taliban -- not a moment too soon, I can tell you as a woman."

Mohsin notes that the economy has improved and that there is a groundswell of popular support for peace with India. "We don't want to fight a thousand-year war with India," she declares. "Not least because both countries are armed with nuclear weapons."

Obaid points out the nuclear monuments that have been erected in Pakistan -- replicas of the mountain where Pakistan first tested its atomic bomb. And during her trip, the controversy over Pakistan's nuclear program becomes an international scandal when it is revealed that Pakistan had been sharing nuclear secrets with Iran, Libya and North Korea.

In a dramatic televised speech, Dr. A.Q. Khan, the "father of Pakistan's bomb," apologizes for proliferating nuclear technology, then President Musharraf calls a televised press conference to pardon Dr. Khan and assert that the esteemed scientist was acting unilaterally, for his own financial benefit, and that the government and the military were not involved. In effect, this puts a lid on further investigations.

The United States and India seem appeased, but Obaid shows that the Pakistani public generally supports Khan. He is considered a national hero for matching India's nuclear arsenal.

Ahmed Rashid, a prominent journalist and critic of the government, tells Obaid it is "impossible" that Dr. Khan acted alone. He says it was the Pakistani army that needed the missiles they got in a nuclear barter deal with the North Koreans. "I think General Beg, as army chief, I am sure was involved."

Obaid is able to secure an interview with General Mirza Aslam Beg, former army chief of staff, at his home in Rawalpindi, although he is in no mood for questions. "Allegations have been made that you knew of the nuclear proliferation," says Obaid. "Why do you think you haven't been arrested?"

"Just to disappoint you," General Beg shoots back. "And my American friends and their stooges here in Pakistan, they still want me behind bars for sins which I have not committed." Beg views the nuclear revelations as an American "conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan."

Obaid also manages to interview Pakistan's former spymaster, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the head of the country's notorious ISI intelligence agency before 9/11, when Pakistan openly supported the Taliban. When the nuclear program was going strong, Gul was one of the most powerful men in Pakistan. He, too, denies that the military was involved in nuclear proliferation. "This is fibbing, this is speculation," he insists. Gul blames America and Israel for trying to undermine Pakistan and take away its nuclear capability. "Islam is the target, Islam is the new enemy," he proclaims.

Obaid discovers that Gul's strong anti-Americanism, and his paranoia, are widespread in Pakistan. "More and more the nuclear scandal feels like a Pandora's box," she says. "Who knows what would happen to Pakistan if it were opened?"

Obaid then sets off for the northwest frontier to meet one of President Musharraf's unlikely allies and sharpest critics, Sami ul-Haq, a senator and founding member of Pakistan's powerful fundamentalist political movement. No friend of the United States, ul-Haq is a friend of Osama bin Laden, though he says he hasn't seen him lately. The militant cleric asserts that Pakistan has a duty to share its nuclear technology with other Muslims: "If we gave it to Iran, what's the crime? If we gave it to Libya, what's the crime?"

Ul-Haq tells Obaid that he believes President Musharraf has cut a deal with Washington, allowing U.S. troops to cross the Afghan-Pakistan border in a spring operation to hunt down bin Laden and al Qaeda. "They will leave our border in shambles. They want Muslims to be tied up like goats and sheep, so they can slaughter us at their will."

Musharraf, says Obaid, is caught between the demands of fundamentalists at home and his promise to the United States to fight terrorism. "Musharraf is under enormous pressure," confirms journalist Ahmed Rashid. "He's seen as toeing the American line, making peace with India, blaming the scientists for this nuclear proliferation." Rashid thinks it is impossible for Musharraf to continue to appease both radical Islamists at home and his Western supporters.

In December 2003, President Musharraf narrowly escaped two assassination attempts. In the first attack, explosives ripped apart a bridge just seconds after his presidential convoy passed over it. Then only two weeks later, on Christmas Day, someone tried to kill him again.

Obaid vists the site of the second assassination attempt, when two cars filled with explosives rammed into the presidential motorcade. Seventeen people died in the blast and more than 40 were injured. Visibly shaken by the assault, Musharraf appeared on television and vowed to crack down on domestic terrorists. At the crime scene, Obaid interviews eyewitnesses and an argument erupts between those denouncing religious extremists and those defending them.

In the rubble of the December 25th blast, investigators found one suicide bomber's cell phone with the memory chip still intact. The phone numbers on it linked the attempted assassin to a militant Pakistani group with links to al Qaeda. The group is fighting in Kashmir, the disputed, mostly Muslim territory between Pakistan and India.

"Kashmir is not just the cause of extremists," says FRONTLINE/World's Obaid. "It's a deeply felt issue, embedded in Pakistan's identity." There's even a national holiday, Kashmir Day, and Obaid sees angry Pakistani nationalists burning an effigy of India's prime minister.

Now that Musharraf is trying to make peace with India and resolve the long-standing conflict over Kashmir, he has declared that Kashmiri jihadis are terrorists. The jihadis have been forced underground. But Obaid manages to arrange a clandestine meeting with a leader of one of the banned groups.

At a secret location, illuminated only by candlelight, Obaid interviews the jihadi, who obscures his face but vehemently denounces India for committing atrocities in Kashmir. "We are not terrorists," he insists. "We are fighting a war for the liberation of Kashmir." He denies that Kashmiri jihadis are responsible for the recent attacks on President Musharraf, blaming them instead on India and Israel.

Obaid leaves worried that the chances for peace are more fragile than she thought. What chance do peace agreements have when jihadis are prepared to die to make Kashmir part of Pakistan? Obaid also fears that the spring military offensive against al Qaeda could bring more trouble to her country and to President Musharraf, particularly if U.S. troops cross into Pakistan.

On the other hand, she can't imagine what would happen to Pakistan if Musharraf is ousted or killed.

Back in Lahore, Basant is still going strong -- kites fill the air and Sufi dancers whirl in the streets. There is still an atmosphere of hope and renewal.

Obaid's final stop is the Indian-Pakistan border at Wagah. Every day there's an elaborate ceremony watched by eager crowds on both sides of the frontier. Pakistani soldiers in dark green uniforms and their Indian counterparts in khaki brown engage in "a ritualized shadow play" -- strutting and confronting each other.

"But on this day," Obaid observes, "I saw something different. For the first time, in a gesture of friendship, they shook hands. And the crowd broke out in cheers. On both sides."


Reporter and Co-Producer




Production Assistant

Special Thanks to

Executive Producers

Director of Program Production

Produced in association with New York Times Television

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