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Prodigal president?

International | Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf gets tough on his former allies and tries to fall back into U.S. favor

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

Once upon a time there was a Pakistani general who saw to the training of thousands of Afghan mujahedeen through the generosity of Americans seeking to contain the Soviet Union.

Now that general has declared war on the jihad armies he once helped to create. Wearing a black tunic and grim expression, President Pervez Musharraf told his nation, "the day of reckoning has come." In a televised address he vowed to crack down on Islamic militants and end "the Kalashnikov and weapon culture."

War on terrorism has pressed the 59-year-old army careerist into a box only a contortionist can escape. To the north the campaign in Afghanistan threatens to bleed across the border as fleeing Taliban look for sanctuary in Pakistan. To the south Indian and Pakistani troops face each other in the most serious confrontation in 15 years.

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Looming when the president made his speech on Jan. 12 was a visit from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was expected to make fresh demands of the U.S. ally in exchange for needed U.S. aid. In a sober but unprecedented speech to a country that is 98 percent Muslim, Mr. Musharraf went to Houdini-like extremes to get out in front of would-be critics.

The president said he would ban three militant Islamic groups, in addition to two others banned last year. He announced sweeping changes for the country's nearly 100,000 madrassas, Islamic schools that launched Afghanistan's Taliban regime and fed the terrorist ambitions that culminated in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He said all mosques must register with the government and no new mosques would be built without government permission. He even curtailed the use of mosque loudspeakers, restricting them to traditional calls to prayer unless the government preapproved special sermons.

Pakistani officials started walking the talk barely 24 hours later. Police in Quetta arrested six leaders of the banned Islamic groups before they could give a press conference denouncing his speech. Provincial forces in Baluchistan province raided 160 madrassas in a surprise visit to gain information on whether they are seeding terrorist activity. Within the week following the speech, in raids on homes and offices, police arrested more than 1,400 people suspected of links to terrorists.

The new crackdown only confirms that Mr. Musharraf is the staunchest U.S. ally in the region. Early in the war on terrorism he supported the demands of President George W. Bush that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden. He fired two key generals, Islamic hardliners who were sympathetic to the Taliban. He provided a substantial base of support for humanitarian and military operations as the only Westernized country bordering Afghanistan. In return, the Bush administration lifted economic sanctions against Pakistan and has promised an aid package that could total $1 billion.

The cooperation has not silenced critics. New rumors circulate nearly every week that Mr. bin Laden has found sanctuary in Pakistan. If the speech was timed to relieve concern from abroad, Mr. Musharraf chose to emphasize internal tension. He said his country was "fed up" with "sectarian terrorism," which he said caused the deaths of 400 Pakistanis last year. "Pakistan has been made a soft state where the supremacy of law is questioned. This situation cannot be tolerated any more," he told viewers.

Much has been made in the press of simmering street support for Islamic extremists. Mr. Musharraf, however, is banking on the allegiance of the silent majority: those who are tired of terrorists. After witnessing the jubilance of Afghans liberated from Taliban rule, the president has spoken out more forcefully against Taliban-linked elements at home. Pakistan's "extremist minority," he said, should end its armed jihad and instead wage holy war against "illiteracy, poverty, backwardness, and hunger."

His attacks on jihadists run counter to the incubation Pakistan-and Mr. Musharraf himself-provided such groups at their conception. With assistance from the United States, Pakistan's elite army Special Services Group (SSG) linked up with the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to train Afghan mujahedeen starting in the 1980s. Soviet forces had invaded Afghanistan, and the Islamic fighters looked like good anti-communist allies. For seven years Mr. Musharraf, assigned to SSG, trained many of them.

By the time U.S. support dried up at the end of the Cold War, Pakistan's ties to the rising Taliban were sealed. Pakistani officials had gone so far as to install a telephone grid across the border. A phone call from anywhere in Pakistan to Kandahar, the Taliban's new headquarters, was a local call. Many in the Taliban carried Pakistani identity cards because they were born in Pakistan's refugee camps, educated in its madrassas, and trained to fight by its agents.

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