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Musharraf argues case in Europe

The president cast himself as Pakistan's best bet for stability in a nine-day visit.

By Laura J. WinterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2008

A leader challenged: A demonstrator in London on Jan. 26 protested Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's visit.

Toby Melville/Reuters

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LONDON

It has been only two months since President Pervez Musharraf put his khaki uniform and general's epaulets into storage to be sworn in as Pakistan's civilian president. In light of that, the former commander of Pakistan's military, speaking Jan. 25 at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London think tank focusing on security issues, asked his audience for understanding.

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Mr. Musharraf is finishing a nine-day European tour, his first as a civilian leader. It has included: a well-received appeal for foreign investment at the World Economic Federation in Davos, Switzerland; a statement of support from French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris; and in Brussels, a meeting with NATO head Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Today, he will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

But the trip has taken place against a backdrop of Western dissatisfaction with Musharraf, who they say has yet to truly address the problems posed by extremists operating in his country and crossing into Afghanistan to fight NATO and Afghan forces. As parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18 draw closer, Musharraf is arguing to his overseas audience that he is the best bet for ensuring stability.

At home, he has had trouble conveying that message. Musharraf's first 60 days as a civilian head of state have been anything but smooth: Sworn in under martial law, he has confronted a series of suicide bombings, the assassination of pro-Western opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, street violence, the delay of parliamentary elections, and increasingly bold attacks by Taliban militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, who is blamed for Bhutto's murder. Some opinion polls show the majority of Pakistan's electorate is unhappy with him.

"A cascade of events has really upset the people of Pakistan and disillusioned them," says Talat Masood, a retired Army lieutenant general. "This is no time for him to travel outside of the country."

Mr. Masood called Musharraf's trip "a public relations exercise" intended to "rehabilitate his image" ahead of the polls. "[Musharraf] is saying to us, 'Look at me. I am so recognized internationally. And I'm the only one with real respect,' " he says.

A diplomatic source said there had been hope that Bhutto would become prime minister and push for squeezing off the stream of fighters entering Afghanistan, where 42,000 NATO troops are engaged in rooting out a resurgent Taliban.

Western countries want to see a decline in extremist activity as well as evidence that Pakistan is doing its best to adhere to democratic norms. But "you have such a complex situation in Pakistan," says Bastian Geigerich, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "You want free and fair elections, but you don't want it all to fall apart," he says. Mr. Geigerich adds that Musharraf "clearly understands how critical he is and will milk it for what it's it worth."

American and British military advisers are said to be sharing intelligence with their Pakistan counterparts. But at RUSI, Musharraf said that no Pakistani would accept foreign troops hunting for Al Qaeda or Taliban on Pakistan soil. In 2007, Pakistan lost hundreds of soldiers to terrorist attacks and military operations in Waziristan.

Musharraf also said it would be foolish to allow foreign intervention into his nuclear weapons policy: "We guard it very jealously." The president sought to reassure them that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, estimated at 40 to 100 warheads, is well out of reach of militant extremists, and is guarded by a 15,000-strong Army strategic command.

"The only way it would be endangered would be if Al Qaeda gets so strong that it defeats the Pakistan Army, or if Taliban supporters win the election," Musharraf said, "and the possibility is zero, multiplied by zero and divided by zero."

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