With the capture yesterday of the suspected mastermind behind the Daniel Pearl kidnapping, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visits Washington today as the man of the hour.
By arresting Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant with the radical Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorist group, General Musharraf has managed a public-relations coup. He has assured American leaders that he is serious about cracking down on terrorist groups and in securing the release of Mr. Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared on Jan. 23.
Musharraf's visit also underscores how dramatically US global relationships have been reordered since Sept. 11. Once called a "failed state" by President Bush, Pakistan is now seen as too important to fail. Once scorned and sanctioned for leading a military coup, Musharraf is now a crucial frontline ally and a voice of Islamic moderation in a country mired in religious extremism.
But such praise has its limits, and the future of the US-Pakistani relationship depends on whether Musharraf can consistently translate his words into deeds. And even the Pearl case remains a sober reminder that Musharraf can only do so much to break the back of jihadi groups that have gained a foothold in Pakistan over the past 20 years.
"The Daniel Pearl kidnapping case should not become the lens through which we judge the credibility of the Musharraf government in cracking down on militant groups," says Rifaat Hussein, director of the defense and strategic studies department at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. "Nobody should be under any illusion that the jihadi mindset is going to die a quick death. It's going to be a long, drawn out struggle."
Thus far, Western and American diplomats give Musharraf high marks in his attempt to bring religious extremist groups - including those that continue to support the Taliban and Al Qaeda - under control. The turning point came in a Jan. 12 speech in which Musharraf told Pakistanis that the 20-year Islamic-oriented foreign policy of jihad, or religious struggle, against India and in favor of the Taliban in Afghanistan, was a "mistake."
"The extremist minority must realize that Pakistan is not responsible for waging armed jihad in the world," Musharraf said in his speech to his nation.
Soon afterword, the Pakistani government began a systematic crackdown on groups that have made jihad their livelihood and mission. Leaders of militant and terrorist groups have been arrested, along with the firebrand leaders of religious parties that supported them. The branch of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency that once funded and coordinated jihadi groups has been disbanded. And Pakistan has begun to regulate and monitor the thousands of private seminaries, or madrassas, that once provided jihad groups with the bulk of their recruits.
Some experts here say that the Pearl kidnapping may have been a signal from jihadi groups that they wouldn't go down without a fight. Pearl was last seen entering a hotel in Karachi for a meeting with Islamic militants. He had been researching a story on links between Pakistani militants, Al Qaeda, and the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid.
Mr. Sheikh, chief suspect in the kidnapping case, was arrested yesterday in Lahore, the largest city in Pakistan's most populous province. Sheikh's arrest followed several leads this weekend, as police arrested other militants who admitted helping Sheikh scan photographs of Pearl and send them to news organizations. At press time, Pearl's whereabouts were unknown, but local media quote Karachi police saying he is alive.
While some militant groups have warned that the Pearl kidnapping is just the beginning of a violent resistance to Musharraf's crackdown on terrorism, the Pakistani public at large seems to give Musharraf broad support. In a recent poll conducted by a prominent Pakistani magazine, Herald, more than 70 percent of the respondents approved of Musharraf's anti-extremist measures. Some 63 percent said Musharraf had done the most of any Pakistani leader to limit extremism.
For Musharraf, the goal of this US visit is to shift attention away from the Pearl case and toward deepening the US-Pakistani relationship. The US has already dropped economic sanctions, and promised as much as $600 million in loans and aid. When he meets Bush and members of Congress today, Musharraf is expected to ask the US to forgive $3 billion in debt, seek funds for education and opening up the US market to Pakistani textiles.
Musharraf is likely to argue that it's the poverty and lack of state-funded education that sends so many rural boys to religious seminaries that are the seedbeds for future militants.
Musharraf wants "help to rehabilitate civil society - jobs, education - and get the liberal-minded ethos of the country reconstructed," says Dr. Hussein, the political scientist in Islamabad. "The American people have every reason to strengthen his presidency."
For some US observers, Pakistan's return to the American fold is not so much a reflection of change in Pakistan as it is a lesson for the US in the consequences of turning its back on long-time friends.
Robert Oakley, a former US ambassador to Pakistan (1988 -91), says many of the problems the US is facing, such as rising Islamic extremism, were ultimately a byproduct of the US shutting off cooperation with Pakistan a decade ago. For example, many Pakistani military officials were once trained in the US, he says. When that was cut, fundamentalists gained influence in the Pakistani military.
"What Musharraf is interested in, and what Pakistan needs, is a long-term commitment" from the US, Mr. Oakley says.
Many in Washington expect Musharraf will also seek modern weaponry, including fighter aircraft, which the US cut off in 1990. Oakley says the continuing tension with India over Kashmir makes this unlikely now. But he expects an accord reestablishing joint military exercises and perhaps US training for the Pakistani military.
For the US, the stability and effectiveness of the Musharraf government are crucial components in the war on terrorism. If Musharraf leaves office for any reason, the US would lose a key ally.
"The question of whether Musharraf is sincere, this is pretty self-evident from his actions," says one US diplomat in New Delhi. "The question now is: How far can he go, and how fast can he go? He has to move Pakistan away from the path of radical Islamism. The problem is that we have had decades where Pakistani leaders have said Kashmir is in the blood of every Pakistani. It's hard for him to turn his back on that."
Staff writer Howard LaFranchi in Washington contributed to this report.