Pakistan's Striving Son: His Mom Says Pervez Musharraf Was Never Much of a Student, but He's Always Been a Leader. Now He's in Charge of a Nuclear Power and Wants to Set a New Course for the Muslim World. Can He Do It?

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Byline: Rod Nordland and Zahid Hussain

The course of history can seem very arbitrary--a messy procession of near misses and unexpected tragedies. When the family of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf gets together to reminisce about his rise to power, for instance, talk turns to bad airplane moments. So it was one night last week when Musharraf entertained visitors at Army House, the official residence of Pakistan's Army commander, where Musharraf has remained since seizing power in 1999. In a large living room carpeted with Persian and Chinese rugs, family and friends traded tales as uniformed servants, wearing golden turbans with tall green cock's combs, delivered tea and Lebanese sweets.

Musharraf himself, dressed in an Armani suit and nestled in a sofa, recalled a trip in a Fokker that ran into a thunderstorm over Pakistan's Karakoram mountains as his worst flight ever. ("It was jerking about like anything," he says.) But for his wife, Sehba, the scariest moment came aboard a Pakistan International Airways flight returning from Sri Lanka in 1999. Musharraf was Army commander at the time, and the civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had dismissed him and then ordered his plane not to land. Sehba was "screaming silently" with her face in her hands, she recalls, after her husband explained what was going on. ("He said I had to stay calm so I wouldn't panic the passengers," she says.) Musharraf used the cockpit radio to contact fellow generals, and orchestrated a coup. With only seven minutes of fuel left, Musharraf directed the PIA pilot to land at Karachi, where soldiers loyal to him had taken over the airport. Sharif was ushered to prison, and Musharraf took charge, becoming Pakistan's first military ruler in 11 years.

Inevitably, the family conversation about airplane scares and politics turns to September 11. It was 6 p.m. in Islamabad when Qaeda hijackers slammed their planes into the World Trade Center. Within four hours Musharraf announced on national television that his government would abandon its longstanding alliance with Taliban rulers in Afghanistan who had sheltered Osama bin Laden--and join America's coalition. Only later did Musharraf consult his advisers and fellow officers. "I took a fast decision. But I did think about it--very carefully," he says now. "I keep to Napoleon's view that two thirds of the decision-making process is based on analysis and information, and one third is always a leap in the dark."

Nobody has taken greater political risks in the last four months than Musharraf. Joining the war on terror and supporting the United States was just the beginning. Last week his government launched a series of dramatic policies that, if successful, will mean a real about-face for Pakistan. They will be the biggest changes since President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in 1981 turned the country into an Islamic republic, with Sharia courts and limited civil rights for women.

Not only does Musharraf want to move Pakistan away from its long and troubled drift into theocracy, but he says he hopes to set an example that other Islamic countries with fundamentalist undercurrents will follow. In the past week he has banned all extremist and terrorist groups and arrested 1,900 activists. He announced elections next October for a National Assembly that would guarantee women at least a fifth of the seats. He granted non-Muslims full voting rights for the first time since 1978. He also says he's determined to make peace with India and solve the dispute over Kashmir that has pushed them yet again to the verge of war.

Colin Powell visited both countries last week to try to ease the tensions. "I don't think there can be war--unless there's some mad action," Musharraf told NEWSWEEK after the Powell visit. But, he added, "that's always a possibility." India has deployed the bulk of its forces along the border in a high state of alert, furious over a Kashmiri suicide attack on its Parliament on Dec. …