Pakistan on Edge over Its Choice to Be a Key US Ally

Article excerpt

By offering the United States "every possible help" against terrorism, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has achieved what nearly two years of intense diplomacy and economic reform couldn't: turning Pakistan from a near pariah into one of America's most important allies in what President Bush calls "the first war of the 21st century."

The evidence of this change was immediate. Pakistani officials went to Afghanistan yesterday to use their leverage with the Taliban leadership to persuade them to turn over America's prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, or face US-led military reprisal.

Longer term, Pakistani assistance is likely to range from giving the US access to Pakistani airspace and military installations for launching an attack into Afghanistan, to sharing with the US its intelligence reports on where bin Laden may be hiding.

But this cooperation in a Muslim nation puts the Musharraf government in a very difficult - and potentially destabilizing - situation.

By reversing more than five years of support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, Pakistan has begun to feel repercussions inside and outside

this economically strapped Islamic republic, that suddenly has become the frontline of the US battle against terrorists.

Pakistani religious and political leaders have vowed to resist any move to base US soldiers on Pakistani soil.

In a clear reference to Pakistan, the Taliban's supreme leader warned last weekend that if any neighboring nation supported a US attack on Afghanistan, he would consider it an act of war and declare jihad, or holy war. Mullah Mohammad Omar also appealed to the Organization for Islamic Conference and Muslim nations to help in a case of an attack.

For Pakistan, a newly nuclear-armed state teetering at the edge of economic collapse, the stakes could hardly be higher.

"The Musharraf government is playing this very carefully," says Rifaat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "The US will be unlikely to base US troops in Pakistan as a staging area, because of the volatility of the situation. If the people view this as the US versus the world of Islam, the reaction will be much more widespread and volatile."

From the perspective of Western diplomats, President Musharraf appears to be doing everything right, so far. He has met with, and gained unstinting support from, most of Pakistan's main opposition leaders, Islamic clerics, news media, and top members of the military establishment.

His last-ditch delegation to Afghanistan yesterday was led by Pakistan spy agency chief Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed - who was in Washington when the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks occurred. The ultimatum: Hand over Mr. bin Laden or face US military action. At press time, CNN reported that Mullah Omar had called a meeting of 600 Taliban clerics for today in Kabul to consider the ultimatum.

Brian Cloughley, a London-based military analyst and author of "A History of the Pakistan Army," says that Pakistan's alliance with the US goes beyond mere military support. "Pakistan has a great deal to offer in terms of moral support, to make the West understand that not all Muslims are loonies," says Mr. Cloughley.

But while Cloughley says Musharraf has secured the entire military leadership behind him, there is likely to be some grumbling among rank-and-file Pakistani soldiers, many of whom are sympathetic to radical Islamic leaders and groups, including the Taliban. …