Pakistan chief `on horns of dilemma'

Military president faces intense U.S. pressure, unstable backing at home

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 18, 2001|By John Murphy and Frank Langfitt | John Murphy and Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

When Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, met U.S. demands yesterday and urged Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden, the military strongman was rewarded with a flurry of flag burnings and protests at home.

This is Musharraf's political challenge: Please the West and risk dissent and assault on his hold on power or mollify Islamic hard-liners and provoke the wrath of the West.

Musharraf "is on the horns of a dilemma," says Ian Talbot, an expert on Pakistan. "He's not in a situation where he can win. Pakistan has nothing to gain from military action."

This will be the defining moment in Musharraf's presidency, says Talbot, director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Coventry University in England and author of Pakistan: A Modern History.

Yesterday Musharraf sent a delegation to Afghanistan to present President Bush's ultimatum: expel bin Laden or face an attack from the United States. The delegation was dispatched as part of Musharraf's offer to give the United States full cooperation in its war on terrorism, including Pakistan's agreement to seal its 1,560-mile border with Afghanistan and to permit U.S. warplane overflights.

The cost became clear yesterday as Islamic groups in Pakistan burned U.S. flags and voiced their support for bin Laden. On the other hand, Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, stands to gain new respect and perhaps economic ties with the West for his cooperation.

The West deplored the coup waged by Musharraf in 1999, but many Pakistanis were glad to see a strong leader replace the hugely unpopular Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Although Pakistanis readily admit Musharraf is a military dictator, some are quick to add: "He's a good dictator."

Little was known about Musharraf at the time he took control. And after nearly two years into office, the government's one-page biography of Musharraf reveals little more than his rapid ascent and his passion for squash, badminton and golf.

Born the second of three brothers in Delhi in 1943, Musharraf and his family moved to Karachi after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when the British split its colony into India, with a Hindu majority, and mostly Muslim Pakistan. He was educated at Christian schools in Karachi and Lahore before joining the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961.

Awards for gallantry and a steady rise up the chain of command marked Musharraf's military career. According to the official biography, instructors at the Royal College of Defense Studies in the United Kingdom offered these comments on his performance: "A capable, articulate and extremely personable officer, who made a most valuable impact here. His country is fortunate to have the services of a man of his undeniable quality."

Musharraf's military career peaked in 1998, when he was promoted to army chief of staff. At the time, there was growing mistrust between the military and the civilian government led by Prime Minister Sharif.

The tension came to a head in October 1999, when Sharif decided to fire Musharraf while Musharraf was traveling outside the country. Cut off from their leader, Musharraf's troops seized control of the government and deposed Sharif. On October 13, 1999, Musharraf declared himself the new leader of the nation of 140 million people, asking them to "support your armed forces in the re-establishment of order to pave the way for a prosperous future."

Musharraf outlined an ambitious plan for Pakistan, including economic reforms and a commitment to restore democracy as of October 2002. On the streets of Pakistan's cities, Musharraf is generally seen as a positive, stabilizing influence on a nation that has suffered through an economic slump and wide corruption. He has also been praised for his attempts at reconciliation with India.

Some, though, have been disappointed in aspects of his performance. In particular, critics say, he has protected military friends from investigation and used an anti-corruption campaign to attack his opponents.

"We don't care who comes or goes," says Munir Khan, 50, a driver in Islamabad. "If bread is there, we're happy."

Musharraf holds power closely. Up until June, his major political titles included: chief of the army, chief of the national security council and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee. Then he added another: president.

"People are very happy [Musharraf] is the undisputed leader of the country," says Ashraf Ali, a 32-year-old doctoral student in political science at Peshawar University in northern Pakistan. "As a political science student, I'm a democracy lover, but I still favor Musharraf."

Others, though, feel he has not done enough to curb corruption or improve Pakistan's economy.

"How can we say we love Musharraf?" says Hazrat Umer, 21, a soldier who patrols Pakistan's northern border with the army's Federal Corps. "I'm making 1,500 Rupees [$23] a month. It's very difficult to live and feed my family."

Musharraf might hear more complaints from Pakistanis in the days ahead as he delivers on his promises and U.S. warplanes begin to cross Pakistani airspace.

But it is a decision Musharraf and his advisers made knowing the risks, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell says.

"They came to the judgment that even with the difficulty it might cause them internally, this was such a problem, such a crisis, and the need to show solidarity with America and to help America and to help the rest of the civilized world, that was so important that they were willing to take risks. And I compliment them for that," Powell said during an interview on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

Wire services contributed to this report.

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