Dispatches : PAKISTAN

Article excerpt

Lahore

President Pervez Musharraf is walking a knife edge at home as he tries to keep a deeply polarized country from tearing itself apart, now that his military regime has pledged full support to the United States in its war against terrorism.

The first test for the regime came on September 21, when thirty-five religious parties called for a nationwide strike and demonstrations after Friday prayers to oppose the government's decision to join the US-led alliance. However, the demonstrations were small by Pakistani standards and largely involved mullahs and teenagers from the thousands of madrassahs, or religious schools, from which the Taliban draw many of their recruits. Most people stayed at home. Although the low turnout made it clear that the vast majority of the population is presently unwilling to support the Islamic parties' antigovernment campaign, the mood could change once US forces are based in Pakistan and military action begins.

Polls vary widely on the question of how much opposition there is to the government's decision to go along with the Americans; the most reliable estimates put it at around 25 percent. Musharraf has appealed to people not to react emotionally, but to put Pakistan's interests first. He said that Islamabad could not afford to be alienated from the international community by trying to defend the Taliban. He has also bluntly told the nation that if Pakistan had not committed bases and other facilities to US troops, India would have done so, which would have posed a severe threat to Pakistan's nuclear program and stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Musharraf's problem is that he is head of a military rather than a political regime, and he has made little attempt to broaden the political base of his government or win over the silent majority, who support his stance. His political skills are severely limited. He has appeared only once on national TV since the September 11 attacks, has given no interviews and has remained largely closeted with his generals. "Pakistan's Islamic groups thrive when the only measure of public support is demonstrations in the streets, and their importance diminishes at times of elections," says Hussain Haqqani, a political analyst and former adviser to Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. …