Ever since a bloodless coup brought him to power last October, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf has been trying to demonstrate to the world that his military background poses no threat to regional security and democracy.
In a country governed by Army officials for half of its existence, General Musharraf says he is trying to weed out corruption and restore democracy before October 2002, the Supreme Court's deadline for national elections.
"The biggest difference between me and the past is that I have an agenda and a time frame," he says. "We are involved in restructuring and reforming the entire system in Pakistan."
Musharraf says, for example, that he will initiate changes to set aside a third of the legislative seats at the local level for women.
Pakistan observer Ayesha Jalal, a history professor at Tufts University, says that Musharraf "does seem to be a man of good intentions," and notes, "This military regime came out of a different context, replacing a government that was really authoritarian though democratic in name."
But Britain and the United States have reservations and have called for speedy elections.
Washington fears that a military leader could bring Pakistan closer to war with neighboring India over the long-disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan and India have fought three wars since Pakistan's independence more than 50 years ago, two of them over Kashmir.
Musharraf was one of the architects of a 10-week battle last year, when Pakistani soldiers crossed over to the Indian-controlled side of the territory.
Musharraf says Washington's fears are exaggerated. "We do not want a war with India," he says. "Both countries should be responsible enough to understand the implications of a war. So I personally think that there would not be a war between the two countries."
Both India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons. Musharraf says that he has no personal objections to signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But there would have to be a consensus within Pakistan to sign it - and Pakistan would not sign unless India signs, he says.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding of the CTBT which needs to be cleared," Musharraf says. "The foreign minister confronted a lot of the religious groups who were opposing it. So we are in the process of developing some kind of concensus."
A few weeks ago, the Japanese prime minister urged Musharraf to sign the treaty by dangling the carrot of much-needed economic aid, which was suspended when Pakistan followed India with nuclear tests in 1998.
Musharraf says that fighting between Kashmiris and Indian troops has not escalated this year. He warned India, however, not to cross the "line of control."
"They should realize that we are not going to allow any kind of incursions across the line of control. We are fully prepared for that....So the escalation would take place if they ever tried that."
Last week, during the United Nations Millenium Summit, Musharraf asked the UN to intervene in Kashmir. A 1948 UN resolution called for a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to choose between Pakistan and India.
The world needs to make New Delhi accept that resolution, he says. "In East Timor, the world community took a hard stance. Indonesia had to accept. Why don't they take the same stand against India?"
Like many other South Asia analysts, Stephen Cohen, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes that the main area of contention in Kashmir, the valley, would vote for independence if given a third option.
Musharraf disputes this prediction, but stops just short of rejecting a three-option ballot. "I would prefer to go for a solution once the process of dialogue starts," Musharraf says. It is "500 percent clear" that Kashmiris do not want to be part of India, Musharraf contends. "I know that the majority would like to be with Pakistan."
"There are some who want to be independent," Musharraf acknowledges. "But if you see the geography of Kashmir, I can't even imagine how they can exist independently in those mountains."
Islamabad has repeatedly said it would talk with India to settle the Kashmir issue. "We are for peace and we would like to talk to anyone anywhere at any level," says Musharraf.
But Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave Pakistan a blistering rebuke during a speech at the UN summit. "The acid test of sincerity of purpose is not words, but deeds," he said. "Terrorism and dialogue do not go together."
"What's holding India back is that it doesn't see what can be discussed," says Radha Kumar, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. For Vajpayee to meet with Musharraf, Islamabad would have to rein in Kashmiri fighters based in Pakistan, she says.
The issue of terrorism also has been a major sticking point between Islamabad and Washington. The US is seeking Pakistan's help in capturing Osama bin Laden, the man believed to be behind the bombings of US embassies in Africa, who is now hiding in Afghanistan. Pakistan helped extradite to the US Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the World Trade Center bombing.
But Musharraf says Washington must talk directly with the Taliban regarding bin Laden.
"The United States needs to deal with them [the Taliban] themselves. We will assist them in that," he says. "Afghans used Pakistan as a base when they were fighting the Soviets. So we have suffered for them over all these years. That much sympathy they certainly have for us, but that doesn't mean they will listen to us blindly. We don't command them."
As to religious schools in Pakistan that teach militancy and are believed by Washington to be recruitment centers for terrorists, the Pakistani leader has publicly chided them for "bringing a bad name to our faith."
"They should be closed," he says. "We have initiated actions and we are going to close them down." he says.
Analysts wonder just how much he can do. "Musharraf, who is a relative moderate, has inherited all these militant groups," says Ms. Jalal. Though the vocal fundamentalists form a minority in Pakistan, the general has backed down from confrontations with them in the face of mass demonstrations, she notes.
Yet the military should be able to take on the militant Islamists because it remains far more powerful than any other group or organization, says Mr. Cohen.
Cohen sees reasons for optimism about Pakistan's future under Musharraf. "Pakistan [under ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif] was a civilian autocracy...It's a freer country now. The courts operate more independently. It has a freer press. It's a lot less corrupt.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society