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For U.S., Support Of Musharraf Is Delicate Balance

For U.S., Support Of Musharraf Is Delicate Balance

Author: Jay Solomon and Zahid Hussain
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: March 11, 2004

Pakistani Helps Terrorist Hunt,
But Illicit Nuclear Sale,
Islamic Parties Worry U.S.
'We Will Continue Our Jihad'

The Bush administration has placed a huge bet on Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, relying on him to help hunt down Osama bin Laden and root out other Islamic terrorists.

The strategy has paid off in the short term, with hundreds of terrorists arrested. But those gains have involved a delicate diplomatic trade-off.

The U.S. has been forced to accept an incomplete airing of the illegal sale of Pakistani nuclear technology to rogue states, possibly leaving the door open to more proliferation. Gen. Musharraf's critics in Pakistan say he has become a more authoritarian leader at a time when the U.S. is trying to promote democracy abroad. And to retain his grip on power, he has formed alliances with fundamentalist Islamic parties, complicating his stated desire to crack down on militant Islamic schools that harbor al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Top American officials' view of Gen. Musharraf boils down to this: Though he isn't perfect, he has been a firm and reliable ally.

He is seen as having a steady hand on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and seriously pursuing peace with nuclear rival India -- an issue that has vexed the West for decades. He risked significant political capital by yanking the rug out from beneath Pakistani support for Taliban forces after 9/11, when the U.S. routed them in neighboring Afghanistan in retaliation for harboring Mr. bin Laden.

He also helped capture more than 500 al Qaeda operatives after the Taliban's fall, including three top bin Laden lieutenants. Currently, Pakistani and U.S. troops are engaged in a major new effort in the tribal areas that divide Pakistan and Afghanistan to find Mr. bin Laden.

But the U.S. doesn't have a clear answer to a question that's growing more urgent: How will Pakistan be ruled once Gen. Musharraf leaves office?

Mounting Pressure

The president narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in December, which Pakistani officials say were orchestrated by al Qaeda-linked groups. And under mounting domestic pressure, Gen. Musharraf recently agreed to give up his role as army commander in December. Though he rewrote the Pakistani constitution to give himself the power to hire and fire the heads of the country's armed forces, relinquishing direct control could significantly diminish his authority.

Washington pursued a similar policy of backing Pakistan's generals throughout the Cold War, when Islamabad was one of Washington's chief allies in the effort to check the Soviet Union's regional aspirations. While such support helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, it fed instability within Pakistan and inspired many of the Islamist groups that ultimately formed al Qaeda.

"It's amazing how short-sighted the Americans are when it comes to Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and a Musharraf critic. "They're making the same mistake again of not giving a high priority to democracy."

The biggest long-term risk of the Bush administration's policy toward Gen. Musharraf involves nuclear proliferation.

Gen. Musharraf drew fire at home and abroad for pardoning Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, after he admitted illegally selling nuclear technologies to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Mr. Khan said he acted without the knowledge of Gen. Musharraf and other military officials, an assertion doubted by many here. Pakistan's government and the armed forces deny any institutional involvement in Dr. Khan's arms network.

Pakistani officials say the pardon was the best way to break up Mr. Khan's network while maintaining stability, given the scientist's status as a national hero. Islamabad continues to hold seven Khan aides without formal charges, but calls by civic groups and lawmakers for an independent investigation into the military's alleged role in the affair have been sternly rebuffed by the government. Absent a thorough investigation and strong civilian oversight of Pakistan's nuclear program, opposition leaders and proliferation experts fear future breaches.

Yet the Bush administration has praised Gen. Musharraf's handling of the affair. "I think he has handled Dr. Khan ... extremely well," said John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in Tokyo last month.

Gen. Musharraf, a former paratrooper, was hardly viewed as an iron man when he oversaw the bloodless coup that toppled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets to welcome his military government, having grown disillusioned by corruption and mismanagement. Even Pakistan's press and middle class largely saw him as a transitional authority through which Pakistan could become a more stable and secular democracy.

"For the whiskey-drinking class, the chattering classes, he was the messiah they'd been waiting for," says Ayaz Amir, a columnist with the Dawn newspaper, Pakistan's largest English-language daily.

Then-President Bill Clinton saw the coup as antidemocratic, slapping sanctions on the general's government and refusing to be photographed shaking his hand during a two-hour layover in Islamabad in March 2000.

Crucial Cog

But after 9/11, his willingness to cut off Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and to allow U.S. military strikes from his nation's soil made him a crucial cog in President Bush's war on terror.

In return, the U.S. showered Pakistan with billions of dollars in financial aid, debt relief and larger quotas for export. Today, U.S. support has underpinned one of Gen. Musharraf's key achievements: an economic recovery. Pakistani officials project economic expansion of as much as 6% for the year ending in March, and exports and foreign-exchange reserves are at record levels.

"The country's moving in the right direction. We just need to continue with the reforms," said Pakistan's commerce minister, Humayun Akhtar Khan, in an interview.


A brief look at the political career of Pakistan's president

Oct. 12, 1999: Gen. Pervez Musharraf seizes power in a bloodless coup, overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

June 2001: Musharraf becomes president

September: Musharraf becomes a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, and withdraws support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan

April 2002: Musharraf extends his tenure as president for five more years through a referendum

October: Pakistan holds parliamentary elections

December 2003: Parliament ratifies a constitutional amendment strengthening presidential powers

December: Musharraf narrowly escapes two assassination attempts

January 2004: Relations with India thaw following landmark meeting between Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Critics say Gen. Musharraf's economic reforms have coincided with backpedaling on his pledge to promote democracy. In April 2002, the general pushed through a nationwide referendum that gave him a five-year presidential term. The vote was largely boycotted by the country's largest opposition parties, which argued that it was unconstitutional because it wasn't sanctioned by the National Assembly's Parliament and Senate. An October 2002 National Assembly election, meanwhile, was never certified by independent monitors from the European Union, which found irregularities.

"Musharraf massively distorted the political process," says Sherry Rehman, a Karachi-based lawmaker with the Pakistan People's Party, which is headed by former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who remains in exile abroad. Independent analysts say regulations passed by Gen. Musharraf's government restricted the party's ability to campaign.

After the election, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report based on research and interviews in Pakistan that the government provided "overt support" for the ruling party and used police to intimidate the opposition.

The government barred Mrs. Bhutto from campaigning, which the PPP charged was illegal and hampered its ability to attract core supporters. Despite this, the PPP won the largest portion of the popular vote and the second-largest number of parliamentary seats at 81. Yet, even this victory was later blunted by Gen. Musharraf's government, which orchestrated the defection of 22 PPP lawmakers.

Last December, the government also pushed constitutional amendments through the National Assembly that significantly strengthen the presidency, giving Gen. Musharraf power to suspend the National Assembly, remove the prime minister and choose his own chiefs of the armed services. The parliament also endorsed Gen. Musharraf's presidency through 2007 in return for his agreeing to retire as army commander at the end of this year.

Traditionally, Pakistan's president was largely a ceremonial job, with the prime minister running the government. Gen. Musharraf, however, changed the constitution to give the president the power to run the government and to sack the prime minister.

Gen. Musharraf's political maneuverings have strengthened Pakistan's Islamist parties. The loss of support for secular parties such as the PPP has translated into votes for a coalition of fundamentalist Islamic parties that swept to power in two Pakistani states in 2002. The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal -- or the United Forum for Action, as the coalition is called -- has also become the ruling party's key legislative partner in strengthening Gen. Musharraf's power.

That partnership has posed problems for Gen. Musharraf and for the U.S. Among his key policy initiatives since the 9/11 attacks is a plan to reform the country's vast network of Islamic boarding schools, known as madrassas. Supported by Islamic fundamentalists, madrassas have been key recruiting centers for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, teaching militancy as well as Quranic studies.

Taliban Support

In the Baluchistan province in the south, madrassas continue to serve as a key support system for the Taliban, despite Gen. Musharraf's promises to curb their activities, a recent visit there shows. In the border town of Chaman, thousands of Taliban soldiers freely move back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan as they launch strikes against U.S. forces inside Afghanistan.

"I am waiting for a call to jihad against an un-Islamic regime," says Abdul Hadi, a Taliban fighter who fled his home in southern Afghanistan and now is housed in a madrassa.

Pashtunabad, a congested slum in the nearby city of Quetta, also has a large concentration of former Taliban, and several commanders are believed to be hiding here. Maulana Noor Mohammed, a member of the National Assembly representing the MMA, runs the principal madrassa in town. "The Taliban will ultimately triumph," says Mr. Noor from the school, where a majority of his students are Afghans.

U.S. officials acknowledge that Gen. Musharraf has been slow to rein in the madrassas, but they also say they don't think he's capable of controlling some tribal areas where the Taliban has congregated. "The situation on the Western border is much more difficult," says a senior U.S. official. "Large portions are no man's land and have been for 150 years."

To address the problem, the U.S. and Pakistan are promoting road and infrastructure projects across Pakistan's tribal areas to integrate the region with the rest of Pakistan. The Bush administration poured some $31 million into the projects last year and is expected to release another $37 million this year.

Gen. Musharraf gets high marks from U.S. officials for his government's efforts to cut off militants operating inside the disputed territory of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have twice gone to war over Kashmir and nearly did so again in 2002 after militants attacked India's Parliament building. New Delhi alleged the assailants were supported by Islamabad. As part of a new peace initiative, Gen. Musharraf pledged to cut off all support for militants operating inside Kashmir.

Some fighters based inside Pakistani-controlled Kashmir say he's making good on his promise. "We have no choice but to go back to our homes," says Mohammed Asfaq, a Srinigar-based insurgent in the Kashmiri border town of Muzaffrabad. He says that the order from Islamabad is clear: Infiltration into India must stop.

But in a dingy room filled with Kashmiri fighters, bitterness toward Gen. Musharraf is also evident. "We will not allow Musharraf to sell out the blood of our martyrs," says Saifullah, a bearded man in his late twenties. "We will continue our jihad."

U.S. officials say they are increasingly concerned for Gen. Musharraf's life as he cracks down on Kashmiri militants and widens the bin Laden hunt. Among those arrested in the attempted assassination on the general in December was a Kashmiri member of an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group.

And U.S. officials say they don't want to press him too hard on the nuclear question, for fear of further undermining his political base. "There is only so hard or so fast that we can push him," says one U.S. official. A Pakistan without Gen. Musharraf running it, he says, would be even more frightening.

---- Carla Anne Robbins in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

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