In Pakistan, the delicate dance of a key US ally
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's deal with Islamists may weaken the broader war on terror.
His autobiography, "In the Line of Fire," went on sale Monday and is aptly titled. Since Sept. 11, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has survived three assassination attempts by Muslim extremists. Later this week, Mr. Musharraf meets with the US and Afghan presidents in Washington to discuss the war on terror.Skip to next paragraph
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When the US surveys the world, there are few more pivotal players in that war than Musharraf. But at home, Pakistan's moderate leader is embattled. To strengthen his position, he's recently struck deals with a hard-line Islamic political party that, analysts say, could undermine counterterrorism efforts.
A controversial peace accord with Taliban militants in early September effectively gives the fighters open mobility in areas bordering Afghanistan. While he defends it, Musharraf doesn't mention that the accord is also paying political dividends to him and a peculiar, relatively unmentioned bedfellow: Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) or the Council of Islamic Clerics. This hard-line Islamist party controls North Waziristan, a province bordering Afghanistan, and brokered the deal.
JUI, which runs most of Pakistan's religious schools or madrassahs, helped educate and indoctrinate the Taliban throughout the 1980s and '90s. But today they are emerging as Musharraf's new political weapon.
JUI officials deny any direct link with the Taliban, but say they support them ideologically. "There is no question of sympathies," says Sahizada Khaled Ahmed Banoori, chief patron of JUI in NWFP. "JUI is a part of parliament. It means they are also part of the government. They are going to assist completely those things which are good for the country."
As elections loom, JUI has become a trusted ally at a time when the president finds himself increasingly alienated from other parties. But there are potential costs to such an alliance, both for Pakistan and the international community. The concern is that as JUI becomes more important to Musharraf's political survival, it will make him less effective against the Taliban.
"His ability [to take on the Taliban] is compromised as long as he's got an alliance with the JUI," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group. But he adds: "Who else is going to be there to keep Musharraf's political house in order in Balochistan besides JUI."
And Musharraf's road to political survival runs through the province of Balochistan and North Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP), two of the largest in Pakistan.
Analysts predict that Musharraf will need JUI to bring in votes in those regions during the presidential election of 2007, and their support for any government he forms should he win.
JUI won't say openly if it plans to side with Musharraf. "Everything that is good for the country, we will support that," says Mr. Banoori, adding that where Musharraf's policies are sound, JUI will support him.
But currently, Balochistan and NWFP are the provinces least likely to side with him. In August, Musharraf's army assassinated revered tribal leader Nawab Mohammed Akbar Khan Bugti, sparking riots in Balochistan and calls for secession. Few, if any, Baloch politicians support Musharraf now. The case is the same in NWFP, where the Pakistani military's hunt for Al Qaeda and the Taliban has left hundreds of civilians dead and a rising tide of resentment against the government.
When Musharraf looked for a way out of both quagmires, he turned to JUI.