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Pakistan's role in the anti-terrorist coalition turns former allies against
By Kathy Gannon, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When terrorists struck the twin towers and Pentagon, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan lost its only friend -- Pakistan.
The next day, President Pervez Musharraf promised "unstinting cooperation" with the United States to fight global terror. Appearing on television in his general's uniform bedecked with battle ribbons, the military ruler declared his move the best option for Pakistan.
"The fight is against terrorism, a battle that has the support of all Islamic countries," he declared.
But the price for Pakistan has been heavy. Pakistanis increasingly fear that the war in Afghanistan has sown the seeds of social, political and cultural conflict within their own country.
After Musharraf threw his support to the Americans, Pakistan became the cornerstone of the U.S.-led campaign. And Musharraf, once shunned by the West as a dictator who seized power in a military coup, has emerged as America's most important Muslim ally in the anti-terror campaign.
But it has enraged the country's militant Islamic movement, which the government had long cultivated to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and as a proxy army to battle Indian forces in Kashmir.
Those Islamic extremists now pose a terrorist threat to Pakistan, and Musharraf's own life has been threatened.
Meanwhile, Musharraf has engineered constitutional changes which Pakistani critics decry as undemocratic, but with little reproach from the United States or other Western champions of democracy.
Pakistan's cooperation has had other rewards. Since Sept. 11, the United States has promised Pakistan $600 million in aid. Pakistan's debts to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Paris Club have all been rescheduled, and its foreign currency reserves have surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time in at least two decades.
However, terrorist attacks on foreigners have seriously eroded the investment climate. The United States and most developed countries are urging their nationals to leave. The threat of nuclear war with India over the disputed Kashmir region remains ever-present.
"Things are much worse, not better since Sept. 11. This is not a more stable place. Washington's military objectives have taken precedence over strong political goals," said Sameena Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, a private, multinational organization based in Brussels, Belgium, that specializes in managing emergencies.
Along with the United States and Britain, Pakistan armed and trained Islamic militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
After the Soviets left in 1989, Pakistani intelligence helped the Taliban seize power, regarding them as a force for stability in a chaotic neighboring country.
In 1997, Pakistan became one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. Pakistani diplomats served as the Taliban's only advocates in the United Nations and in foreign capitals.
In return the Taliban allowed Pakistani extremists to use their country to train extremists for a proxy war in Indian-ruled Kashmir -- all with Pakistan's tacit approval, though it officially denied involvement and insisted it only gave diplomatic and moral support to the separatists.
Musharraf's decision to join the war on terrorism has brought Pakistan's aid for the militants out of the closet.
The militants, well armed and well organized, are motivated by their vision of an Islamic nation and by a powerful aversion to the West. "The United States used them against Russia and then Pakistan used them against India, but their goal is the same then as now. They want Islam to rule," said Nizamuddin Shamzai, headmaster at one of the country's largest Islamic schools.
As the U.S. air war began in October, the government's control over the militant movement enabled it to contain the scope of anti-American demonstrations. The first protests were feeble by Pakistani standards, drawing barely 5,000 people.
Realizing the protests were no big threat, Pakistan allowed the United States use of four air bases to support the war effort. But Musharraf did little to crack down on Pakistani militants, even though they had close ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida movement.
All that changed with the bloody attack Dec. 13 on the Indian Parliament, apparently by Islamic rebels headquartered in Pakistan. India sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the border and raised the specter of nuclear war.
Under pressure from the Americans -- who feared any India-Pakistan confrontation would undercut the war in Afghanistan -- Musharraf went on national television Jan. 12 to ban five leading extremist organizations. Police rounded up thousands of militants and padlocked their offices.
After the crackdown, Americans and other foreigners quickly became targets of extremists -- Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl kidnapped and murdered; Christian churches attacked; 11 French engineers were killed by a suicide bomber in Karachi; a car bomb outside the U.S. Consulate that killed 12 Pakistanis.
But Musharraf soldiered on, declaring to his people: "We have been on the forefront of the international war on terrorism. We stand firmly committed to root out this curse."
Musharraf has exploited Pakistan's role in the anti-terror war to shore up his own position. While promising parliamentary elections in October, he has changed the constitution to prevent disgraced former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto from returning from abroad to run. He has given the army a role in running the country and last April held a referendum that extended his stay in power for five years.
Critics fear that all this has set the stage for protracted conflict between Musharraf and the civilian political establishment as the two groups fight for power once the new parliament is elected in October. That would undermine efforts to improve the nation's economy and build social cohesion to confront the challenge from the religious extremists.
With much at stake, the United States has avoided strong criticism.
Ahmed, of the International Crisis Group, complained that the United States has opted to back the military dictatorship because it needs a stable Pakistan to help the war on terrorism.
"I see a real opportunity lost," she said. "The United States was too
afraid of democracy in Pakistan because it would be like democracy
anywhere, chaotic and unpredictable."