In Pakistan, the delicate dance of a key US ally

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's deal with Islamists may weaken the broader war on terror.

His autobiography, "In the Line of Fire," went on sale Monday and is aptly titled. Since Sept. 11, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has survived three assassination attempts by Muslim extremists. Later this week, Mr. Musharraf meets with the US and Afghan presidents in Washington to discuss the war on terror.

When the US surveys the world, there are few more pivotal players in that war than Musharraf. But at home, Pakistan's moderate leader is embattled. To strengthen his position, he's recently struck deals with a hard-line Islamic political party that, analysts say, could undermine counterterrorism efforts.

A controversial peace accord with Taliban militants in early September effectively gives the fighters open mobility in areas bordering Afghanistan. While he defends it, Musharraf doesn't mention that the accord is also paying political dividends to him and a peculiar, relatively unmentioned bedfellow: Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) or the Council of Islamic Clerics. This hard-line Islamist party controls North Waziristan, a province bordering Afghanistan, and brokered the deal.

JUI, which runs most of Pakistan's religious schools or madrassahs, helped educate and indoctrinate the Taliban throughout the 1980s and '90s. But today they are emerging as Musharraf's new political weapon.

JUI officials deny any direct link with the Taliban, but say they support them ideologically. "There is no question of sympathies," says Sahizada Khaled Ahmed Banoori, chief patron of JUI in NWFP. "JUI is a part of parliament. It means they are also part of the government. They are going to assist completely those things which are good for the country."

A new ally, but at what price?

As elections loom, JUI has become a trusted ally at a time when the president finds himself increasingly alienated from other parties. But there are potential costs to such an alliance, both for Pakistan and the international community. The concern is that as JUI becomes more important to Musharraf's political survival, it will make him less effective against the Taliban.

"His ability [to take on the Taliban] is compromised as long as he's got an alliance with the JUI," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group. But he adds: "Who else is going to be there to keep Musharraf's political house in order in Balochistan besides JUI."

And Musharraf's road to political survival runs through the province of Balochistan and North Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP), two of the largest in Pakistan.

Analysts predict that Musharraf will need JUI to bring in votes in those regions during the presidential election of 2007, and their support for any government he forms should he win.

JUI won't say openly if it plans to side with Musharraf. "Everything that is good for the country, we will support that," says Mr. Banoori, adding that where Musharraf's policies are sound, JUI will support him.

But currently, Balochistan and NWFP are the provinces least likely to side with him. In August, Musharraf's army assassinated revered tribal leader Nawab Mohammed Akbar Khan Bugti, sparking riots in Balochistan and calls for secession. Few, if any, Baloch politicians support Musharraf now. The case is the same in NWFP, where the Pakistani military's hunt for Al Qaeda and the Taliban has left hundreds of civilians dead and a rising tide of resentment against the government.

When Musharraf looked for a way out of both quagmires, he turned to JUI.

In North Waziristan, JUI leaders responded by flexing their political muscles: they brought local Pakistani Taliban to the table and negotiated a cease-fire. For now, a delicate peace seems to be restored. But for many, relying on JUI as the middle man between the government and the Taliban is a Faustian deal, and it underscores Musharraf's political weakness at home. In the deal, JUI also won concessions for the local Taliban, resulting in the release from prison of hundreds of their fighters.

JUI members defend the deal as a practical solution for peace. "The North Waziristan deal is a good for the people, so we supported it," says Mr. Banoori.

Similarly, JUI has emerged as the key intermediary in Balochistan. For most of the summer the province has teetered on the brink of political conflagration following Bugti's death. Baloch nationalist parties have threatened to resign from the provincial assembly, a move the Islamic parties in Pakistan's parliament in Islamabad have endorsed. With a potential bloc building against him, Musharraf faced a crisis. But then JUI stepped in. Of all the Islamic political parties, only JUI holds any seats in Balochistan. JUI's leaders didn't support the resignation threat, effectively destroying its momentum and incurring the wrath of their conservative colleagues.

Musharraf's gatekeeper

Ironically, one of the central gatekeepers of Musharraf's political fortunes today are those who once paved the way for the Taliban. Despite JUI's ideological roots, or perhaps because of them, JUI is now a power to be contended with in the delicate puzzle of Pakistani politics. In national elections held in 2002, JUI emerged as the main political force in Balochistan and the North Western Frontier Province – thanks to new heights of Islamic resentment stoked by Washington's attack on Afghanistan. JUI and its Muslim coalition partners, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) or the United Action Front, also managed to secure 63 seats in the National Assembly.

"JUI was never able to win that many seats in the past," says Ramiullah Yusufzai, a longtime Pakistani journalist based in Peshawar. "But now, after the last election, its fortunes have gone sky high. It controls [Balochistan and NWFP]."

Musharraf has always relied on deals with the Islamic political parties to maintain political control. But in recent years most Islamists have turned against him, issuing scathing attacks on his relationship with Washington and his efforts to induce moderation. Whenever there is a political crisis, the Islamists are among the most vociferous calling for Musharraf's resignation. But not the JUI, analysts say. Although hardline, they are more pragmatic and less ideological in their political decisions, because, like Musharraf, they have a lot to lose. It was in February 2005 that JUI first broke ranks with the other religious parties and began supporting Musharraf, causing strains in the MMA alliance.

"JUI has a huge stake in the continuation of this system, unlike other religious parties," argues Ershad Mahmud, an analyst with the Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamabad think tank. "It is the intent of the JUI to continue with this government."

Today JUI and Musharraf enjoy a mutually beneficial marriage of convenience. Musharraf, analysts say, needs them as much as they do him for his presidency bid in 2007.

"Musharraf doesn't want that all opposition parties will get together against him. If he can keep JUI slightly to his side, then he can prevent a movement," says Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore.

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