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Pakistan: So Far, Musharraf Is Playing a Clever Hand


As Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf wrapped up his televised speech on Jan. 12, bursts of automatic fire could be heard in the streets of Karachi--believed to be shots of protest from supporters of the religious schools Pakistan's President was vowing to rein in.

The reaction was a sharp reminder that Musharraf is walking a dangerous tightrope as he tries to avoid all-out war with India one month after its government accused Pakistani-linked terrorists of attacking the Parliament in New Delhi. Musharraf's declaration that Pakistani groups involved in terrorism and religious extremism would not be tolerated--coupled with hundreds of arrests days later--have somewhat placated Indian officials, who say they may soon start pulling back some of the 550,000 Indian troops on Pakistan's border if Musharraf puts his words into action. The radical elements of Pakistani society, however, remain deeply suspicious of Musharraf's attempts to curb terrorism and turn Pakistan into what he calls a "progressive Islamic welfare state."

Yet in any struggle for power in Pakistan, two forces count for far more than the anger of the street--the army and Inter-Services Intelligence, the military intelligence agency. Both the army and the ISI have long backed separatist violence in Kashmir, the territory whose control Pakistan disputes with India. No surprise, then, that many analysts have figured Musharraf's control of the army and the ISI might weaken as he took on extremists and the crisis with India progressed. Talk of a coup against Musharraf has been frequent.

Musharraf, however, has played his hand cleverly. Although he is standing up to extremists, he is keeping support for Kashmiri Muslims as key policy goals for Pakistan. "He hasn't compromised on Kashmir," says retired General Hameed Gul, a former ISI chief. That means "Musharraf does enjoy the support of the army and the ISI," he adds.

Musharraf likely consulted key generals on his speech. But he has also been tough with the top brass. The President has been careful to remove powerful figures who could provide a focal point for resistance. Since Pakistan withdrew its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has tightened his grip on the ISI, installing a loyal follower, Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, as the agency's chief. Haq replaced Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, believed to be pro-Taliban. Musharraf has also reshuffled the military command structure, replacing key generals with his own men. He's made it clear that the army won't be neglected as $600 million in aid from Washington pours in and Pakistan gets $12 billion in foreign debt rescheduled. Musharraf has pledged to combat poverty, but the aid also frees up other funds for the military, which takes 70% of the state budget each year.

Now Musharraf is hoping that the pressure from New Delhi and Washington will let up. "The crucial concern that the military [has] is that Pakistan not be pushed down the slippery slope of one concession after another to the Indians," says Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution think tank. Musharraf will score big points if India pulls its troops back. He might also renew his request for U.S. military aid, a logical quid pro quo for helping the U.S. go after the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Beyond the immediate crisis, Musharraf must decide whether to hold elections planned for Parliament and Prime Minister in October. Of course, if he averts war and keeps the army in check, he will be stronger than ever. That will make it easier for him to fulfill his own goal of remaining in power as President, even as Pakistan inches back toward democracy. The resignation on Jan. 13 of French magistrate Eric Halphen, who had headed an anticorruption probe of President Jacques Chirac, has sparked concerns that France's judicial system is bowing to political pressure. An appeals court, accusing Halphen of procedural errors, removed him last fall from the Chirac case, which focuses on alleged corruption during the President's tenure as mayor of Paris in the 1980s and early 1990s. Halphen now says he was wiretapped, followed, and secretly filmed while working on the case.

In the wake of his resignation, national magistrates' organizations have denounced the appeals-court ruling and warned that efforts to root out corruption are being compromised. Although the Chirac investigation continues under another magistrate's direction, the President enjoys immunity while in office and is seeking reelection this year to a five-year term. As Tokyo prepares to host an international conference on Jan. 21 to drum up reconstruction money for Afghanistan, the U.N. and two other agencies have released their estimated cost of the project--$15 billion over 10 years. Key donors are likely to be the U.S., the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, which may foot some 20% of the bill. Checkbook diplomacy is losing popularity in cash-strapped Japan, however. After 10 years as the world's single most generous donor nation, Japan has slashed its overseas aid budget by 10%, to $7 billion, for the fiscal year starting Apr. 1, 2002.


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