Pakistani leader walks fine line in US antiterror effort

Secretary of State Powell is due to meet today with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Many Pakistanis oppose airstrikes.

As the world held its breath after a military coup, he emerged as the man with two chihuahuas.

When Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over on Oct. 12, 1999, he was quickly photographed in a comfortable living room, joking and holding the family dogs. The image of a friendly dictator, Western-leaning, a secular leader in a Muslim country - is one he has used to great advantage in a disfunctional state with nuclear weapons, where the concept of Islamic "jihad" had become institutionalized.

Since Sept. 11, Musharraf has become central to the US-led "war on terrorism," something that makes the idea of his removal - albeit unlikely - a concern. Many ordinary Pakistanis don't like it, but he signed off on the use of Pakistan's air space in the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban regime that harbors him, and US commandos are in the country.

Pakistan itself, in 34 days, has moved from international basket case to "front-line" state. The change is stunningly quick. For two years, Musharraf had been hectored by US diplomats critical of a lack of democracy here. "But after Sept. 11, no US officials talk about democracy," says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, smiling slightly. "They just want a reliable friend."

For Musharraf, terrorism has been an unexpected opportunity. Pakistan's crushing $70 billion external debt was rescheduled with nary a blink. The general is trying to "educate" a public deeply angry with the US-led bombing of Afghanistan. He explains that Pakistan has moved from pariah to partner at the expense of archrival India - and he dangles the possibility that cooperation with the West may bring new help on Kashmir, a dispute with India that Pakistanis regard with fervent singlemindedness. Secretary of State Colin Powell comes here today and the subject will certainly be raised.

Musharraf can likely take credit for slowing down US plans to militarily support Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the main anti-Taliban resistance. The earnest general made a case that the alliance is not yet capable of governing, and that should Kabul fall, refugees would flood his country, destabilizing it.

Moreover, the pace of events, requiring a U-turn after eight years of support for the Taliban, is giving Musharraf leverage to curb domestic extremists. He is starting to reign in groups and leaders who hope Pakistan will shun the West and create an Islamic alliance that stretches from Saudi Arabia into Central Asia.

In an extremely risky move, Musharraf last week removed three key generals known for their hard-line Islamist views and pro-Taliban policies. Some called it "a second coup." Reliable sources confirm that one general, Mahmood Ahmed, the secret-services chief, had blocked Musharraf's attempts to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and had been witholding sensitive information.

Not that Musharraf is off one of the hotter seats among world leaders.

He must move toward economic rebuilding while his country is wracked with anger: Near the southern city of Jacobabad, police clashed yesterday with demonstrators opposed to the reported presence of US personnel at a Pakistani air base.

He still must deal with a powerful and often invisible "Afghan cell" in the secret service. He must try to steer Pakistan through deep cultural clashes between moderate and radical elements.

Musharraf may want to modernize, but Pakistan continues to move in a more-strict Islamic direction. "The common man is more hard-line than a few years ago," says Khalid Ahmed, a columnist in Lahore. "The military, the judiciary, and the street are all becoming more fundamentalist."

Musharraf enjoys cautious support among a section of the middle-class. They say he represents Pakistan's interests and like his anticorruption campaigns. "I personally feel Musharraf is doing well for Pakistan," says Hasan Tariq, a computer-science student in Islamabad. "He should take bold steps, but also take care for people's feelings about the bombing."

Mustafa, a kitchenware seller who uses only one name, says about 70 percent are happy with Musharraf, 30 percent are not. "We don't like a war against Afghanistan, we have no problem with Afghan people," he says.

Born in the wrenching partition of India in 1947, this Muslim state of more than 141 million veers between democracy and dictatorship. It has more voter enfranchisement than nations such as Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and a relatively free press. English is a common language among educated people, and the majority of its Muslims are moderate.

"What most people really want is to be in business, to have their own shops," says Mirajul Islam Zia, a professor at Peshawar University. "They want a normal life. But they also want to be more Muslim."

Musharraf reportedly thinks of himself as a secular Muslim and is known to admire Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey.

Ironically, Musharraf was brought to power by the same three Islamist generals he removed last week - a coup brought on when former President Nawaz Sharif tried to replace him as chief Army commander by refusing to let his plane land in Karachi. "Musharraf was the least Islamic of the core commanders, but his staunch opposition to India authenticates him," says Dr. Ahmed. "Now he has to rebuild the military. It won't be easy."

Pakistan's two squabbling political parties were made largely defunct by the 1999 military takeover.

Musharraf, though promoting local elections, often felt beleaguered when trying to explain to foreign diplomats the complexities of reforming a thoroughly corrupted system where only 1 out of 240 persons pays taxes.

Pakistan is set to hold national elections next October - a year from now - according to a Supreme Court ruling. Musharraf has pledged to honor that ruling.

Monitor staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this report.

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