Pakistan leader on rise, but future in U.S. hands

Prolonging war could make it harder to check growing foes

November 09, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

A year ago, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, was a figure some prominent Americans did not yet know even by name. When a reporter asked presidential candidate George W. Bush to name the leader of Pakistan, he responded that the leader was a general, name unknown, who had come to power in a coup.

When Bush meets Musharraf tomorrow in New York for the first time, the Pakistani president will have the status of being a key American ally in the war against Afghanistan's Taliban regime and an unexpectedly deft politician at home. On his way to the United States, he met yesterday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, a diplomatic dance card that seemed unthinkable three months ago.

His political future, though, now depends largely on the progress of the American military campaign against the Taliban.

"If the campaign is successful in a few weeks time, Musharraf will sail in fair weather and is likely to emerge as a savvy, sagacious person who did the right thing in pledging support," said Syeda Abida Hussain, a former Cabinet minister who served as Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993.

"If the campaign is prolonged and if it looks like it's not going anywhere, then General Musharraf and his government will be in very serious trouble."

The events of Sept. 11 radically changed his and his country's stature. In 1998, the United States downgraded relations with Pakistan in response to its test of a nuclear weapon. On Oct. 12, 1999, Musharraf, then army chief of staff, led a bloodless coup that overthrew the country's democratically elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and relations cooled further.

But after Sept. 11, faced with competing pressures from the United States and Afghanistan's Taliban regime, Musharraf endorsed the American war against terrorism. He forcibly retired senior army officers sympathetic to the Taliban, offered the Pentagon use of air bases and granted permission for American warplanes to fly over Pakistan on the way to their missions in Afghanistan.

He has survived threats from Islamic fundamentalists who have organized anti-American demonstrations and called for his overthrow. He has placed radical religious leaders under house arrest. And his distrust of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance has influenced American military tactics and perhaps assured him a say in the character of a post-Taliban government. All the while, he has appeared calm, confident and in control while preaching patience to the nation's 140 million residents as they weather an unpopular war next door.

"My people, at this time, a wrong decision could destroy the country," Musharraf warned in a televised address in September. "Emotion doesn't get us anywhere." He promises that his country will prove a reliable ally. After meeting with Blair in London, he declared, "We will remain part of the coalition until the attainment of the strategic objectives we have set for ourselves."

As the American bombing intensifies, however, opposition to his support for the United States is growing. Demonstrations have been confined to the nation's Islamic fundamentalists, but students and businessmen are becoming more vocal. University students complain that the United States is duping Musharraf and will abandon Pakistan as soon as the Taliban are toppled. "People have this natural tendency to feel sympathy with the underdog, and ordinary Afghans are regarded as underdogs," said Mansoor Alam, head of Pakistan's Foreign Service Academy, who said he was speaking personally, not as a government official. "To see Muslims being killed creates sympathy."

Privately, some analysts suggest Musharraf could use the war in Afghanistan as a reason to smash Pakistan's religious extremists once and for all. Others wonder whether his regime is up to the task and cite an attack last month by unidentified gunmen who killed 16 people at a church in the southern city of Bahawalpur.

"Scores of horrific terrorist attacks, like the one in Bahawalpur, have happened in the past," warned an article this week in Dawn, the country's leading English-language newspaper. "Whether it is sheer incompetence, a low level of operational capability, or lack of the requisite will and persistence ... the government's track record in preserving public peace has been dismal."

To minimize public anger, Musharraf has said he would try to persuade Bush to suspend the bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week. Although the United States may pause for the opening of Ramadan, the Pentagon has said military action will continue.

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