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THE WORLD

U.S. Concerns About Musharraf Are Mounting

Asia: To Pakistanis, Kashmir is a more contentious issue than the leader's role in war on terror. It could cost him the presidency.

June 02, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As tensions build in South Asia, the United States is increasingly worried about the fate of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a central player in the war on terrorism whom the Bush administration considers a model of moderation for the turbulent Islamic world.

What happens next between India and Pakistan will depend heavily on what the Pakistani general decides to do, U.S. officials say. And the pressures he faces over the disputed Kashmir region are far greater than those growing out of his support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, Musharraf tried to calm world fears of a catastrophic conflict, saying that neither Pakistan nor India is "irresponsible" enough to use its nuclear weapons.

"One shouldn't even be discussing these things, because any sane individual cannot even think of going into this unconventional war," he said in an interview with CNN.

Yet Musharraf's options for preventing some kind of conflict range from unappetizing to dangerous. Some could even undermine his hold on power at a time when Washington still needs his support in tracking down terrorists with the Al Qaeda network who have evaded American forces in the region for seven months.

"This is the toughest test of his political life," a senior Bush administration official said, asking to remain anonymous.

Opposition to Musharraf at home is growing. Islamic militants distributed leaflets around mosques Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, calling on Pakistanis to overthrow him because he is a "corrupt policeman" acting only on behalf of the U.S.

And the Bush administration's concern goes beyond pressure on the Pakistani leader from militants. Musharraf is trapped in a potentially untenable position within a wider swath of society as he struggles to accommodate demands from his restive population, his U.S. allies and his Indian rivals.

Musharraf has already tempted the fates by defying public opinion when he sided with the United States after Sept. 11 and turned against the Taliban--a radical Islamic movement that was largely created by Pakistani intelligence services in an effort to ensure at least one friendly border.

And reining in Islamic extremists involved with Kashmiri separatism is a much more contentious issue than nabbing Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan or along the Pakistani border.

"It took courage for Musharraf to acknowledge that supporting the Taliban was a failure and a strategic blunder. But to do the same thing on his Kashmir policy may be a bridge too far," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

"Kashmir is so fundamental to Pakistani political identity that it's much harder, in terms of political stability, to walk away from Kashmir too," Laipson said.

For Pakistanis, ending India's control of a large chunk of predominantly Muslim Kashmir is a national cause dating back to the founding of the state in 1947. Several Islamic militant groups, including some with links to Al Qaeda, still have public support or empathy because they are perceived as freedom fighters struggling to liberate Kashmir.

So going against the popular will imperils Musharraf's position at home, analysts warn.

"Were he to totally stop all forms of activity, including paramilitary support to the militants in Kashmir, there would be a domestic backlash that would be very, very powerful," Laipson said. "Some of the military would almost certainly turn against him."

Tensions with India have a personal angle for Musharraf. He was born in India in 1943; his family left New Delhi when the end of British rule led to partition and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

Kashmir has also long been a professional preoccupation for Musharraf. A hawk on security issues, he orchestrated the 1999 military incursion across the so-called Line of Control between the two sections of Kashmir when he was head of Pakistan's army.

Only intervention by President Clinton, who invited Pakistan's then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Washington for hastily arranged talks, led Pakistan to pull back. But military and public anger after the withdrawal played a role in Sharif's ouster only months later in a bloodless coup led by Musharraf.

Musharraf's hawkish tendencies were underscored last month when, amid rising hostilities along the border with India, he moved to test nuclear-capable missiles.

Yet India and the U.S. now demand that Musharraf act to stop the insurgency over Kashmir. If he doesn't end the cross-border infiltrations, he confronts the very real danger of Indian retaliation.

Musharraf would then face extraordinary pressure to strike back--and risk a full-scale war.

"If the Indians do anything that embarrasses him, then he's compelled to respond forcefully. This is the escalation scenario," said Stephen Philip Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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