Pakistani Leader Walks Fine Line in US Antiterror Effort ; Secretary of State Powell Is Due to Meet Today with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Many Pakistanis Oppose Airstrikes

By Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

Pakistani Leader Walks Fine Line in US Antiterror Effort ; Secretary of State Powell Is Due to Meet Today with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Many Pakistanis Oppose Airstrikes


Robert Marquand writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As the world held its breath after a military coup, he emerged as the man with two chihuahuas.

When Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over on Oct. 12, 1999, he was quickly photographed in a comfortable living room, joking and holding the family dogs. The image of a friendly dictator, Western-leaning, a secular leader in a Muslim country - is one he has used to great advantage in a disfunctional state with nuclear weapons, where the concept of Islamic "jihad" had become institutionalized.

Since Sept. 11, Musharraf has become central to the US-led "war on terrorism," something that makes the idea of his removal - albeit unlikely - a concern. Many ordinary Pakistanis don't like it, but he signed off on the use of Pakistan's air space in the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban regime that harbors him, and US commandos are in the country.

Pakistan itself, in 34 days, has moved from international basket case to "front-line" state. The change is stunningly quick. For two years, Musharraf had been hectored by US diplomats critical of a lack of democracy here. "But after Sept. 11, no US officials talk about democracy," says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, smiling slightly. "They just want a reliable friend."

For Musharraf, terrorism has been an unexpected opportunity. Pakistan's crushing $70 billion external debt was rescheduled with nary a blink. The general is trying to "educate" a public deeply angry with the US-led bombing of Afghanistan. He explains that Pakistan has moved from pariah to partner at the expense of archrival India - and he dangles the possibility that cooperation with the West may bring new help on Kashmir, a dispute with India that Pakistanis regard with fervent singlemindedness. Secretary of State Colin Powell comes here today and the subject will certainly be raised.

Musharraf can likely take credit for slowing down US plans to militarily support Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the main anti- Taliban resistance. The earnest general made a case that the alliance is not yet capable of governing, and that should Kabul fall, refugees would flood his country, destabilizing it.

Moreover, the pace of events, requiring a U-turn after eight years of support for the Taliban, is giving Musharraf leverage to curb domestic extremists. He is starting to reign in groups and leaders who hope Pakistan will shun the West and create an Islamic alliance that stretches from Saudi Arabia into Central Asia.

In an extremely risky move, Musharraf last week removed three key generals known for their hard-line Islamist views and pro-Taliban policies. Some called it "a second coup." Reliable sources confirm that one general, Mahmood Ahmed, the secret-services chief, had blocked Musharraf's attempts to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and had been witholding sensitive information.

Not that Musharraf is off one of the hotter seats among world leaders.

He must move toward economic rebuilding while his country is wracked with anger: Near the southern city of Jacobabad, police clashed yesterday with demonstrators opposed to the reported presence of US personnel at a Pakistani air base. …

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