QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) -- From their front-row seats at the world's strange new war, some Pakistanis fear the United States may be headed into a clash of cultures it cannot win, with fallout no one can predict.
There is Syed Zaheer Ali, for instance, a dapper man of moderate politics who runs the Quetta Chamber of Commerce. He studied in New York and made American friends before coming home to Baluchistan, the province on Afghanistan's southern border.
"If this ends up as a world war, Americans will see things they cannot imagine," he said. "Vietnam will seem like a picnic in comparison. A lot of humanity will be at stake."
Across Pakistan, a thumping majority condemns the Sept. 11 attacks. Many speak with touching warmth of the grief over the more than 5,000 killed or missing from terrorism on American soil.
But even tolerant Muslims with liberal political views say the repeated pounding of a prostrate Afghanistan may strengthen its Taliban rulers, while eroding sympathy for the United States.
Washington has worked hard to get across the message that its war is against terrorists, not against Muslims. But many Pakistanis say the inevitable toll of innocents could become part of an easily exploited image of a Christian superpower raining more misery on a desperately poor Muslim backwater.
President Pervez Musharraf backs the United States, outraged by the attacks and also eager for better relations at a time when hard-pressed Pakistan can use a wealthy friend.
For diplomats and analysts, the crucial question is whether he can keep Pakistanis behind him as events unfold.
Abdul Basit, a Yale-educated Lahore lawyer who colleagues say has refused offers to be attorney general, believes Musharraf has made a fatal mistake.
Islamic extremism may have limited legislative clout, he said, but its undercurrents are strong and growing fast.
"Every Pakistani is extremely susceptible to the rhetoric," Basit said. Stroking his own clean-shaven cheeks, he added: "You may find a very well-dressed man, but he might have a beard inside."
Then there is Pakistan's nuclear capability.
"In a Talibanization of Pakistan, I see nuclear weapons being brandished in support of fanatics," Basit concluded. "If all this gets into irresponsible hands, it's a horrible thought."
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