ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — More than a week after an assassination attempt on President Perez Musharraf, Pakistanis are wondering what the implications of the attempt are for the future of their country. Musharraf’s hard-line stance against Islamic militancy has won him support in Washington, but has cost him much of his power base within the country, analysts say.
“Obviously there is such a strong animosity to the U.S. on a global and domestic level and by virtue of his pursuing policies of alliance with the U.S., that animosity is directed toward him,” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a former secretary of defense and a well-known analyst. “That’s the trouble with being a military leader: the lack of political infrastructure makes all policies personal. But no sane political or military leader would go against the U.S.”
Much of American foreign policy in Pakistan and the region rests on Musharraf’s firm grip on power. As a member of the elite club of nations with nuclear capability, Pakistan will always remain at the top of America’s foreign priority list.
The disclosures this week that some of Pakistan’s top nuclear scientists are under investigation for allegedly helping Iran develop its own nuclear program only served to highlight the dangers posed by the nation’s unstable political climate.
It will force Musharraf to make many tough decisions in order to maintain his control in Pakistan as well as his good standing with the United States, analysts said.
Pakistan has seen a series of military dictatorships since birth as a nation in 1947.
These regimes condoned Islamist militancy to help wage an insurgency against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
But since the launch of the U.S. war on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, Musharraf has clamped down on militants. In November, he banned six Islamist groups for the second time after they had reemerged under new names.
This move further aggravated religious extremists who were already enraged by the recent improvement in relations between Pakistan and India.
Musharraf “now has to make up his mind on whether to support the jihadist forces with whom he was allied in the past over Kashmir or make a clean break,” said Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, political analyst and professor at Quaid-e-Azam University. “He had formerly been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. It is clear that the jihadists are after him now and he needs to make his choice.”
The assassination attempt only appeared to stiffen Musharraf’s resolve. "I have been saying that the greatest danger to our nation is not external, it is internal," the president said in an interview on state television. "It comes from religious and sectarian extremists, and this is a typical example of that."
On a domestic level, the attempt on the president’s life has led to speculation on the future of his hold on power – as well as the consequences of his sudden removal.
Even though the bombing was unsuccessful, there has been growing speculation that there was a military connection, given the plotters apparent inside knowledge of Musharraf’s travel plans.
In the immediate aftermath, Musharraf shook up his inner circle, naming Major General Nadeem Taj as director general of Pakistan's military intelligence.
It was clear the sophistication of the plot rattled Musharraf, Dr. Hoodbhoy said. “He is seen as a tool of the Americans even within the army,” which had been his power base in Pakistan.
Without a strong political base, the sense in Pakistan is that had Musharraf been killed there would have been utter chaos.
Masood agrees. “There would have been chaos and wrangling in the ruling party with the opposition taking advantage of that.”
NBC's Naveen Masood is based in Islamabad.