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A Delicate Balance of Rule for Pakistan's Musharraf

March 05, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf, a decorated paratrooper, has already survived fierce battles in war and politics. He is now waging the fight of his life.

In the last two years, he has forsaken Pakistan's former Taliban allies, promised to end Islamic militancy, restarted delicate peace talks with India and acknowledged that a national hero ran a global black market in nuclear arms technology.

Each risky step has won praise from Washington but drawn criticism from a volatile mix of constituencies at home, including members of the military that is crucial to his hold on power.

Nationalists accuse him of selling out Pakistan's prestige and territorial claims. Mainstream politicians say that despite his promise to crack down on Islamic militants, he has protected those he finds useful.

Yet many of the militants accuse him of betrayal, and some have even tried to kill him: In December, he survived two assassination attempts within 11 days.

Musharraf once enjoyed wide support here for leading a coup against thieving politicians. He says he is winning the fight to transform Pakistan into a stable democracy that rejects any form of extremism, and he may yet bring many disparate strands together to save the country from itself.

But he might also turn out to be another failed military ruler who digs his country into a bigger hole. Critics charge that the president is turning into an angry strongman who will do anything to stay in power. His actions often contradict his words, and his policies sometimes push him into deeper trouble. At the heart of his strategy, critics maintain, is a Faustian bargain that aids the very extremists he publicly opposes.

Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said Musharraf has turned his back on millions of worldly, middle-class Pakistanis who practice moderate Islam, and is destroying the democracy he claims to be defending.

"His attention is focused on ensuring that he retains the support of the West, particularly the U.S., and the support of the religious right to neutralize his secular political opposition," Ahmed said. "It is this fault line that characterizes his rule."

Washington regards the 60-year-old Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, as the best hope for stability here and in the broader region. Two recent decisions illustrate Musharraf's importance to the United States -- and the dangers he faces.

Under U.S. pressure, Musharraf last month exposed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the widely popular father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, as a nuclear arms peddler. That angered many Pakistanis and fed suspicions here and abroad that senior military officers approved the nuclear proliferation. So Musharraf also praised Khan as a national hero and quickly pardoned him.

Musharraf faces similar pressures over Kashmir. India claims the rights to all of Jammu and Kashmir, but Pakistan says Kashmiris ought to be able to vote on independence or union with either country. Peace talks between the rival nuclear powers are scheduled to start as early as May and aim to show progress by August.

If Musharraf compromises too much, Pakistanis will conclude that he is a failed pawn of the United States and it might break him, said Hamid Gul, a former head of the Pakistani military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, who thinks Washington isn't pressing India hard enough.

"There should be no impression that America is trying to put Pakistan in a corner and bash it with a big stick," Gul said. "I think that impression is getting more firm in Pakistanis' collective mind: That Americans are no friends of ours, and if they are trying to support Pervez Musharraf, it is because they have a vested interest in him at this particular time."

Many Pakistanis -- from ordinary citizens to top military commanders and the Islamic militants who send fighters to the disputed Himalayan territory -- are hawks on Kashmir.

Last fall, a 54-member U.S. task force of South Asia experts sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society concluded that Musharraf and key military officers "favor a hard-line policy on Kashmir and believe that they need the militants to maintain pressure on India."

A senior State Department official described Pakistan's behavior under Musharraf as "more cooperation than not" with U.S. objectives.

"You have to look at this in all its complexity," the official said. "There are good things going on. There are other things that should be happening that maybe aren't ... but it's an ongoing effort."

Musharraf faces difficult choices. "He's riding several tigers at the same time, occasionally hopping from one to the other," said Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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