As I was boarding my Emirates Air flight from Dubai to Pakistan the other day, I noticed a young Pakistani in front of me wearing a brown corduroy jacket, on the back of which was written in big white letters: "Titanic."
Hmmm, I thought, that's not a good sign. I started to wonder: Is America the Titanic and Pakistan the iceberg we're about to hit, while we're searching for Osama bin Laden in the fog of Afghanistan? Or is Pakistan the Titanic, its president, Pervez Musharraf, the captain, America the only passengers and Afghanistan the iceberg we're about to hit?
Who knows? But the more I see of Pakistan, the more I realize the iceberg image is useful _ because what you see popping out on the surface often bears little relation to what lurks below. Here's what I mean:
On the surface, President Musharraf has made a courageous 180-degree turn, from supporting the Taliban to joining the U.S. coalition to destroy the Taliban and bin Laden. What lurks beneath the Pakistani president, though, is less clear. There is really only one institution in Pakistan _ the army. For now, that Pakistani army seems to have moved all 180 degrees with the president _ but the Pakistani silent majority has not. And the Pakistani army, whose leadership is still Western-oriented but whose base is increasingly affected by Islamic trends, will be influenced by that silent majority, particularly the religious parties.
Pakistanis like to say that events here are determined by three things: "Allah, America and the army." Right now America and the army are one side. If their alliance delivers benefits to Pakistanis, the regime will be okay. If not, more and more Pakistanis will look to Allah for direction.
On the surface, we're in the same war with the Pakistanis. But beneath the surface we're fighting two different wars: "America is fighting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is fighting India through Afghanistan," says the Pakistani analyst Husain Haqqani. "The whole reason Pakistan first supported the Taliban in Afghanistan was to gain strategic depth against India, with which it has fought three wars. And the main reason Pakistan is getting involved with the U.S. now is to guarantee that it has more influence in a post-Taliban Afghanistan than India and is paid by the U.S. in ways that will strengthen Pakistan against India."
On the surface, Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to be on the U.S. side. But beneath the surface everyone here knows that it was the "war" between Iran and Saudi Arabia for who would have the most influence over the Muslim world that has fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This 20-year Iranian-Saudi struggle for influence was played out with money for schools, mosques, banks and social welfare groups. These Islamic institutions filled the vacuum left by failing governments, but they also created a generation across this region with a lot more sympathy for bin Laden than America. Every young person I spoke with in Peshawar, when I asked about arresting bin Laden, had the same answer: "Show me the proof."
On the surface, we see the war in Afghanistan as a just war to end terrorism. Beneath the surface, both Pakistanis and Afghans see it as a war between the Taliban _ who are ethnic Pashtuns and who stretch from Afghanistan right across the Pakistani border here into Peshawar _ and the Northern Alliance, who are primarily Tajiks and Uzbeks. For us this is good versus evil; for them it is the Hatfields versus the McCoys _ Round 50. The Pashtun-led Taliban will not break easily, because they think they're fighting for the survival of their tribe in Afghanistan _ not for the survival of bin Laden. But bin Laden can take advantage of that.
"You should focus on getting rid of bin Laden and (the Taliban leader) Mullah Omar, but be ready to accept any Taliban ready to play a new role," said Rifaat Hussain, a strategic studies expert at Islamabad University. "Otherwise you will be creating a huge ethnic imbalance in Afghanistan, and if you really pressure all the Pashtun Taliban out of there, they will retreat to their logical fallback position: Pakistan."
None of this means that America can't win in Afghanistan. It can. But it must be smart. Dorothy, this ain't Kansas; to win will require navigating alliances where nothing is called by its real name, where everyone is wearing a mask and where what you see on the surface is only a sliver of what you might get.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service