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American Interests in the Region Destablizing Pakistan
by Saima Alvi
07 July 2002 12:42 UTC
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July 5, 2002

As Pakistani's Popularity Slides, 'Busharraf' Is a
Figure of Ridicule


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 4 — The man chosen to
provide the local muscle in America's campaign against
terrorism is finding himself with hardly a friend at

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's dictator, who bet
his future on a post-Sept. 11 alliance with the West,
has lost considerable popular support as he has forced
a series of dramatic changes on this Islamic country
at the behest of his foreign allies, according to
recent interviews with dozens of Pakistanis. 

Nine months after joining the Western coalition
against terrorism, General Musharraf, 58, is isolated
in his own land, increasingly a figure of ridicule and
the focus of a growing anti-Western fury that is
shared by Islamic militants and the middle class

The decline in the general's fortunes represents an
abrupt turnaround since last autumn, when he was
hailed at home and in the West as a reform-minded
Muslim leader in the mold of Ataturk, the founder of
modern Turkey and one of the general's heroes.

The general's hold over the army and at least the
upper echelons of Pakistan's powerful intelligence
services is not in doubt, for now, and there appears
to be no immediate threat to his power. But at no time
since Sept. 11 has he appeared as isolated or

General Musharraf's dutiful carrying out of
Washington's demands is galvanizing a widespread
feeling here that he has largely traded away
Pakistan's sovereignty to the United States and that
Pakistan's new policy toward Kashmir is the latest in
a series of humiliations he has endured at America's
hand. With F.B.I. agents now joining in raids of
suspected hideouts of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the
anti-American sentiment here has reached a peak.

Indeed, General Musharraf has become so closely
identified with the Americans that he has even earned
a nickname on Pakistan's streets: "Busharraf."

A nationwide referendum on his rule two months ago was
regarded so widely as fraudulent that the general was
forced to acknowledge the nation's anger publicly. 

His decision this spring to block the infiltration of
Islamic fighters into the Indian-held part of Kashmir,
while averting a war with India, is prompting threats
of revenge from the militants. 

"If America stops its support, Musharraf wouldn't last
for a day," said Usman Majeed, 31, a businessman in
Islamabad, echoing the sentiment of many middle-class
Pakistanis. "Musharraf is doing all these
unconstitutional things because he has America's
support. But America is not our friend."

While no public opinion polls are available to judge
the general's performance, many anecdotal indicators,
like his portrayal in the press and comments from
political and business leaders around the country,
suggest that public confidence in him has eroded
markedly in recent months.

A vivid illustration of the general's changing
fortunes can be found in an influential Pakistani
monthly, The Herald. After General Musharraf's major
speech on Jan. 12, when he proposed to turn the
country away from militant Islam, he appeared on the
magazine's cover, dressed in a white tunic and
gesturing boldly under the headline "Musharraf's New

Two months later he appeared on the cover again, his
face bloated and sweating, hiding behind a mask of
Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's dictator in the
1980's, who is widely reviled for his brutality and
for supporting the forces of militant Islam. The
headline: "Games Dictators Play."

"I think he missed his opportunity," said Afrasiab
Khattak, a lawyer and human rights advocate in
Peshawar. "Once he had the public behind him. But now
he has chosen only to perpetuate his own power."

As his popularity ebbs, the general is making efforts
to shore up his rule. 

Last week he announced that he was considering
rewriting the Constitution to give himself the power
to dissolve Parliament and dismiss the prime minister
in any future elected government. With the general
widely expected to hold parliamentary elections in the
fall, many analysts here say he is setting the stage
for an almost certain confrontation.

After the events of Sept. 11, when President Bush
offered General Musharraf the stark choice of helping
the West or opposing it, he embarked on a bold course
intended to lead this Islamic republic down a more
moderate and secular path. 

He withdrew support for the Taliban, the militant
Islamic group that ruled neighboring Afghanistan and
which his country's intelligence agencies had helped
to create, and orchestrated a crackdown against
militant Islamic groups that had long sent fighters to
Afghanistan and Kashmir and were threatening to
radicalize Pakistan itself.

At the time, General Musharraf demonstrated a
combination of boldness and agility that enabled him
to prevail in the face of extraordinary pressures. He
faced down his critics and outmaneuvered his enemies,
particularly the Islamists within his army. 

To do that he relied on the support of the vast
majority of Pakistanis who share his vision of
moderate Islam and who were willing to set aside their
desires for a more democratic government.

But the general's nimbleness seems to have failed him,
and the people have taken notice. 

General Musharraf's eroding fortunes present American
officials with a quandary: if they keep pushing the
leader of Pakistan to help prosecute the campaign
against the terrorism and to avoid a potentially
catastrophic war on the subcontinent, they may also
contribute to his downfall.

American officials have long worried about the
prospect of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into
the wrong hands, particularly in case of a takeover by
Islamic militants. At the very least it seems likely
that domestic pressures may force the general to balk
at future American demands, particularly insistence
that he continue to shut down the flow of insurgents
into Kashmir.

General Musharraf may yet regain his footing. He still
commands the support of a large number of Pakistanis,
particularly those who see him as the only alternative
to rule by conservative mullahs or by elected thieves.

Even in a country as vibrant as Pakistan, with a
relatively free press and an outspoken populace, the
general need not fear a public rebellion yet. As long
as the army remains unified behind him, he will
probably be able to continue in office.

The concern among some Pakistanis, though, is that he
may rule in a vacuum. As his support fades, he will
feel less and less confident to make politically
difficult choices, like taking on the militants who
want to fight in Kashmir.

"There is a growing perception that Musharraf is a
weak person, a weak commander, who continuously
retreats," said A. H. Nayyar, a physics professor at
Qaid-e-Azam University.

For now the more immediate danger is an attack by one
of the many militant groups that have made the general
their enemy. A senior Pakistani official said last
week that suspected members of Al Qaeda imprisoned at
Guantánamo Bay had told their American interrogators
of a plot to kill General Musharraf for his perceived

Security around him has been beefed up recently, the
official said, and he is so concerned about traitors
in his ranks that he often carries his own handgun.

Some militant groups, blocked for the first time from
moving into the Indian side of Kashmir, are vowing to
strike back. Some people worry that militants may be
conspiring with some elements inside the Pakistan Army
to destabilize the general's government.

"No Pakistani leader has ever betrayed Kashmir and
survived," said Yahya Mujahid, a leader of
Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Pure, which has
been outlawed by the Pakistani government and deemed a
terrorist organization by the United States. "We are

The last Pakistani leader who showed weakness over
Kashmir was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who under
pressure from the United States and India withdrew his
forces from the Kargil region of India three years
ago. Two months later, he was overthrown and arrested.

The man who toppled him, of course, was General
Musharraf, the leader of the Pakistan Army.

Some Pakistanis have begun to speculate that Islamic
militants inside the military may try to topple
General Musharraf, especially if he continues to block
the militants in Kashmir. For years the Pakistan Army
and Inter-Services Intelligence trained and armed
Islamic radicals to fight in places like Afghanistan
and Kashmir. 

Severing that connection might be more difficult than
simply issuing an order.

"The army is a very disciplined force, but the
president has taken actions against the broad national
sentiments," said Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a retired chief
of the intelligence agency and a supporter of militant
Islamic groups. "Its discipline could be tested."

Outside the army, there is discontent among many
moderate Pakistanis who see signs that General
Musharraf's stifling of democracy is beginning to push
Pakistani society into the hands of the militants.

"America is making things worse by supporting the
general," said Mr. Khattak, the Peshawar lawyer.
"After Sept. 11, democracy is indispensable here. Only
democracy can root out terrorism."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company |
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