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