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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Pakistan Weighs a High Risk at U.N.

If it votes against the U.S. on Iraq, Islamabad could imperil ties that strengthened after 9/11.

March 15, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan rolled the dice by vigorously supporting the United States in its war on terrorism, a gamble that has brought Islamabad heaps of economic aid and a new veneer of international respectability.

Now the government of President Pervez Musharraf faces another high-stakes test in the U.N. Security Council showdown on Iraq, one that could determine whether the improvement in its relations with the United States has staying power or is short-lived.

The United States sees Pakistan's support as crucial if a U.N. resolution to authorize war against Iraq reaches a vote. Pakistan wants to stay in the United States' good graces -- but knows that a pro-war vote could incite this country's overwhelmingly antiwar populace.

As one of six undecided nonpermanent members of the 15-nation council, Pakistan could cast the crucial vote.

How Pakistan would vote remains unclear. Here at home, leading politicians say Islamabad would abstain or vote "no" on any war resolution and that it favors only peaceful disarmament of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But U.S. sources at the United Nations cling to hopes of Pakistani support.

"The situation is delicate because a negative vote would place a strain on the U.S. relationship. But in their heart of hearts, no one in the government, none of the people in Pakistan, want the war," said political analyst Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general.

After Sept. 11, Musharraf gave his support to Washington at great political risk. Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiment run high in Pakistan, and relations with the United States were strained at the time.

Nevertheless, Musharraf cracked down on extremist groups, arrested hundreds of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda members and gave the U.S. military the use of three air bases for raids on Afghanistan during the war in the neighboring country.

On March 1, Pakistani intelligence agents in nearby Rawalpindi captured Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. The arrest gave rise to hopes that Osama bin Laden might be next.

Some analysts think the arrest of Mohammed and the Bush administration's appreciation of Musharraf's domestic difficulties mean that Pakistan will continue to receive U.S. aid even if it abstains or votes against a U.S.-backed Iraq resolution.

"Pakistan has obvious domestic problems plain to the naked eye, and it has just given us a 'biggie' with the arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," said Teresita Schaffer, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "If you look at the lineup of wavering countries, they are the most obvious to get a free pass."

Musharraf's gamble in helping the United States was a calculated one. Pakistan's economy was on the verge of collapse under the weight of crushing foreign debt, a sharp drop in foreign investment and mounting social problems. He needed cash and some breathing room from his creditors.

Internationally, Pakistan was a pariah, the "most sanctioned country on Earth," as one analyst put it. Musharraf took power in October 1999 by overthrowing a democratically elected president. Pakistan was one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

To top things off, it had earned near-universal disapprobation by proceeding with a nuclear weapons development program that included a testing its technology.

Musharraf saw a way of improving the bleak prospects of Pakistan, where 60% of the population of 145 million is illiterate and 35% lives in poverty. On Friday, he was rewarded -- Bush extended a waiver of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Pakistan after Musharraf seized power.

Musharraf also has hopes that the United States can somehow intercede in its bitter dispute with India over Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim region that was divided between Pakistan and India in 1947. Pakistan thinks it got the short end of the stick in the partition and wants a plebiscite to redraw the boundary.

While staying discreetly out of the Kashmir fray, U.S. officials say Pakistan has come through in a major way since Sept. 11.

"Bush asked Musharraf to flip 180 degrees, to go from a policy of helping the Taliban to one of assisting the United States in dismantling it," said one U.S. government official and longtime Pakistan watcher who asked not to be named. "The cooperation has been truly superb."

The upshot is that U.S.-Pakistani relations are now at a high point, Schaffer said, much as they were in the late 1950s, when American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft used the Pakistani city of Peshawar as a base for spy flights over the Soviet Union. They peaked again in the late 1980s, when the United States was showering hundreds of millions of aid dollars a year on Pakistan for its cooperation in the campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A decade-long chill ensued that is only now improving.

Additional U.S. aid for Pakistan could be announced later this month, when Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali is scheduled to meet with Bush in Washington.

"What happens at the Security Council," Schaffer said, "will show us whether 9/11 started a new golden age of U.S.-Pakistani relations or simply that we are in between divorces."

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