RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN — By offering the United States "every possible help" against terrorism, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has achieved what nearly two years of intense diplomacy and economic reform couldn't: turning Pakistan from a near pariah into one of America's most important allies in what President Bush calls "the first war of the 21st century."
The evidence of this change was immediate. Pakistani officials went to Afghanistan yesterday to use their leverage with the Taliban leadership to persuade them to turn over America's prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, or face US-led military reprisal.
Longer term, Pakistani assistance is likely to range from giving the US access to Pakistani airspace and military installations for launching an attack into Afghanistan, to sharing with the US its intelligence reports on where bin Laden may be hiding.
But this cooperation in a Muslim nation puts the Musharraf government in a very difficult - and potentially destabilizing - situation.
By reversing more than five years of support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, Pakistan has begun to feel repercussions inside and outside
this economically strapped Islamic republic, that suddenly has become the frontline of the US battle against terrorists.
Pakistani religious and political leaders have vowed to resist any move to base US soldiers on Pakistani soil.
In a clear reference to Pakistan, the Taliban's supreme leader warned last weekend that if any neighboring nation supported a US attack on Afghanistan, he would consider it an act of war and declare jihad, or holy war. Mullah Mohammad Omar also appealed to the Organization for Islamic Conference and Muslim nations to help in a case of an attack.
For Pakistan, a newly nuclear-armed state teetering at the edge of economic collapse, the stakes could hardly be higher.
"The Musharraf government is playing this very carefully," says Rifaat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "The US will be unlikely to base US troops in Pakistan as a staging area, because of the volatility of the situation. If the people view this as the US versus the world of Islam, the reaction will be much more widespread and volatile."
From the perspective of Western diplomats, President Musharraf appears to be doing everything right, so far. He has met with, and gained unstinting support from, most of Pakistan's main opposition leaders, Islamic clerics, news media, and top members of the military establishment.
His last-ditch delegation to Afghanistan yesterday was led by Pakistan spy agency chief Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed - who was in Washington when the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks occurred. The ultimatum: Hand over Mr. bin Laden or face US military action. At press time, CNN reported that Mullah Omar had called a meeting of 600 Taliban clerics for today in Kabul to consider the ultimatum.
Brian Cloughley, a London-based military analyst and author of "A History of the Pakistan Army," says that Pakistan's alliance with the US goes beyond mere military support. "Pakistan has a great deal to offer in terms of moral support, to make the West understand that not all Muslims are loonies," says Mr. Cloughley.
But while Cloughley says Musharraf has secured the entire military leadership behind him, there is likely to be some grumbling among rank-and-file Pakistani soldiers, many of whom are sympathetic to radical Islamic leaders and groups, including the Taliban. The memory of America's rapid withdrawal from Pakistan after Afghan fighters drove invading Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 still grates, even on some of Pakistan's more pro-Western military officers.
"The Army is somewhat ambivalent toward the US," says Cloughley. "They have enormous resentment that the US let them down after the Afghan war. On the other hand, they have enormous respect and admiration for the capabilities of the US military. By and large, admiration will win out."
Given Mr. Bush's stated goal, to "hunt down, find, and smoke out" the groups responsible for last Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Pakistan's most valuable asset will be intelligence from its vast spy network. Through its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), Pakistan has trained, armed, funded, and occasionally eliminated rebel groups inside Afghanistan for the past 23 years.
With perhaps hundreds of ISI agents throughout the country, and possibly under deep cover within bin Laden's own organization, Al Qaeda, Pakistan could potentially provide America with the information that leads US commando units directly to Bin Laden's tent.
For this cooperation, Pakistan hopes to get substantial rewards for its friendship.
In addition to seeking relief for mounting debt from Western powers and the World Bank, Pakistan seeks US promises to install a new government in Afghanistan and to help resolve its 53-year-old dispute with India over the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan also vetoed any future inclusion of Indian or Israeli troops in a multinational force based on Pakistani soil.
With the scale of America's military response yet to be defined, it's difficult to gauge Pakistani public opinion on the new cooperation of their government with the US. But on the busy, broad streets of Rawalpindi, the less-showy sister city of the nation's capital, Islamabad, the reaction is decidedly mixed.
At a hastily called street protest, leaders of religious parties threatened war against the US if Afghanistan is attacked. Carrying signs that read "God Is the Only Superpower, Not USA," and chanting slogans such as "Long live Taliban, Death to America" a crowd of some 300 Islamic stalwarts vowed to resist Pakistani's involvement against Afghanistan.
"I'm not happy about the American deaths, but I'm not happy to read about Pakistan's favor to the Americans either," says Naeem Akhter, a school teacher in Rawalpindi.
Like many staunch Muslims, he says the only way peace can come is if the US becomes more even-handed in its foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East. "If America is a superpower, why doesn't it solve the problem of Palestine? Now they want to attack Afghanistan, it's impossible. I won't accept this favor of our government."
"We will never let anyone use our land at any cost," says Riad Mughal, a sales representative for a pharmaceutical firm in Rawalpindi. "You know the emotions of the Pakistani people. I'm sure 90 percent of the people are against this decision."
Sameer Khan, a commercial property developer who stands on the outskirts of the protest, says the religious parties are just a very vocal minority. "This is not a matter of religion. This is a matter of humanity," he says.
"If Osama bin Laden did this, or if anybody else did it, the Afghan people have to give that person to their judgment, anywhere in the world."