Pakistan's fragile balancing act as US anti-terror ally

A US military team left yesterday, with an agreement to share intelligence data.

From the start, it had the makings of a beautiful friendship.

Pakistan would give the United States military intelligence, logistical support, and permission to use Pakistani airspace. In return, the US would give Pakistan debt relief, an end to US sanctions, and a return to its old role as a trusted Western ally.

But as a team of US military planners flew back to Washington yesterday after three days of talks with Pakistani counterparts on details of a joint antiterrorist campaign, this beautiful friendship appears to have its complications.

Pakistani military sources, complaining privately to the local press, say that the US campaign against Osama bin Laden and his host, the Taliban government in Afghanistan, could end up fomenting domestic unrest and even destabilizing Pakistan. Most worrisome, they say, is that the US hasn't yet succeeded in drawing other Muslim nations into a multinational force, and is placing too much reliance on a fractious group of anti-Taliban guerrillas called the Northern Alliance.

The lesson, experts say, is that there are limits to what the US can request and to what the government of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf can give.

"I don't think there is any disagreement within the military about whether to cooperate with the US," says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "But it would be difficult to have Pakistani troops involved in military ground action in Afghanistan. That is domestically something that the government will have trouble selling."

In the early 1990s, under the previous President Bush, the US and Pakistan were patting each other's backs after a successful proxy war drove Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Then, as the US scaled back its presence in the region, eventually cutting off most aid to Afghan rebels and their Pakistani patrons, the alliance became strained. Relations dipped further over nuclear tests that Pakistan and archrival India each conducted in 1998, and the 1999 military coup that brought General Musharraf to power.

Today, as US officials, including President Bush, declare themselves "pleased" with Pakistan's support so far, there are definite questions as to how far Pakistan's political and military establishment is willing to go in its current alliance with the West.

"I think Musharraf made the only decision available to him," says Sajad Haider, a retired commodore for Pakistan's Air Force. "But I think Musharraf has to be very careful about what the forces of dissent in Pakistan can do if American troops are based even temporarily here. It could be very dangerous."

Pakistan, a nation that spends some 40 percent of its total budget on its military, would appear to be a powerful ally for the US. But religious conservatives both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan have heightened the difficulty of Pakistan's leadership in putting its military forces to use in a US-led coalition.

The government organized rallies yesterday in several cities, including the capital, Islamabad, to show popular support for its policies. They were meant to counter near-daily, sometimes violent demonstrations in which Islamic activists have gone from criticizing Musharraf to calling for open resistance if US troops use Pakistani bases to launch attacks on Afghanistan.

In his most pointed statement to date, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar said this week that the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "the result of cruel policies and was meant to avenge this cruelty." Despite such strong words, there are signals within Afghanistan of weakening Taliban control. According to Pakistani press reports, Taliban forces have abandoned the southern city of Khost, where Mr. bin Laden had constructed a tunnel complex for training mujahideen fighters. The Taliban also has come under heavy attack near the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and even 45 miles from the capital of Kabul itself, where Northern Alliance troops from the rebel-held Panjshir Valley are said to be preparing a major attack.

But Pakistani military analysts, including retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, warn that the US must not rely totally on the Northern Alliance as a replacement of the Taliban. Its leaders are members of Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities, and failed once before in creating a broad enough government to rule Afghanistan. Instead, Lieutenant General Masood says, the US should build ties with moderates within the Taliban government, who represent Afghanistan's Pashtun majority.

As for the reliability of Pakistan's Army, Masood, who formerly served as secretary of defense for production, says the US missed a chance to build ties when sanctions halted training programs for Pakistani military officers at US war colleges. But even though today's officer corps is much less Western-oriented than in the past, Masood says there is little chance of a revolt. "The culture has become more traditional, just as Pakistani society has become more traditional in the last decade," says Masood. "America could have built greater understanding about the way the West works, not only in its military but also its society and its concept of pluralism. But there is a stronger tradition of professionalism in the Pakistani Army."

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