When Pakistan’s military ruler toppled the country’s democratically elected government two years ago Friday, so bloodless was the coup that only a handful of army troops were ordered into the streets. Yet as America’s key ally in the attack on Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf has been forced to use the military to quell violent protests and the rumblings of a palace putsch.
THE U.S.-LED airstrikes on neighboring Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership have put Musharraf in a jam — caught between international pressure from a U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition and domestic forces sympathetic to Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia. As U.S. cruise missiles and warplanes roar over Pakistani airspace, Musharraf, a career military officer, is walking a political tightrope.
MUSHARRAF IN THE MIDDLE
This week, street protests led by religious hard-liners among Pakistan’s predominantly Muslim population have turned violent. Rejecting their president’s endorsement of the U.S. campaign, 1,500 demonstrators shut down Quetta, a provincial capital of 400,000 near Pakistan’s southern border with Afghanistan. Rampaging through the city center, protesters burned a U.N. office and attacked a police station. Riot police fired at the crowd, killing five people.
Few in Pakistan believe that Musharraf’s government is in imminent danger. He has relatively wide popular support, despite the fact that on Oct. 12, 1999, he seized power from his elected predecessor, Nawaz Sharif. The public had grown weary after a decade of epic corruption in government.
And in the big picture, the protests have not been that large — just a few thousand people in a population of 140 million.
But for Musharraf, who has filled his cabinet with civilians and run Pakistan like a quasi-democracy, sending troops into the streets of the country’s main cities is a reminder of his long military career — and a signal of the government’s unease as U.S. airstrikes continue.
“There could be a potential threat on the long run if the war continues with the same intensity and if there are a large number of civilian casualties, which would have a strong emotive reaction in Pakistan given that we are Muslim brothers,” said Mushahid Hussain, a political analyst and Pakistan’s information minister from 1997 to 1999.
In the international arena, Musharraf faces a different quandary. The Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States presented the Pakistani leader with a stark choice: join the U.S. war on terror or risk further international isolation.
InsertArt(2009123)Musharraf chose the former, and almost immediately Pakistan’s fortunes improved. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on Islamabad, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell plans a visit next week. The United States also lifted a series of economic sanctions imposed after Musharraf’s 1999 coup, and after Pakistan, along with India, tested nuclear devices one year before.
“Pakistan took the choice of joining the world community,” Musharraf said at a news conference the morning after the first U.S. strikes on Afghanistan.
THE RISK AT HOME
Domestically, Musharraf’s choice carries the risk of hurting his power base. Hard-line officers in Pakistan’s military government oppose the president’s abandonment of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which Pakistan’s intelligence services and military nurtured as a friendly government in the neighboring country.
As part of his pledge of support for the United States, Musharraf promised Washington intelligence on the Taliban and terror suspect Osama bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996. When Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence office, with its vested interest in Afghanistan’s radical Islamic leaders, became an impediment, Musharraf sacked the head of the ISI, Gen. Mehmood Ahmed.
The move — accompanied by the reshuffling of dozens of military officers — was in keeping with Musharraf’s liberal tendencies as a leader, but it isolates him from the military men, including Ahmed, who backed his 1999 coup. Musharraf’s shake-up has the country’s political elite whispering of the potential for another coup.
But for now, analysts say, Musharraf has consolidated control over Pakistan’s 750,000-strong army.
“These changes strengthen his hand,” said Sardar Aseff, a former Pakistani minister of foreign affairs. “The impression that the military establishment is going in different directions is now over.”
THE PROBLEM NEXT DOOR
During his two years in power, Musharraf has showed a yearning to grow out of his military uniform and into one of a statesman. In June, he had himself declared president, promising general elections in October 2002, and then set off to India to try to negotiate an end to India and Pakistan’s decades-old battle over the disputed Kashmir border region.
Since Sept. 11, Musharraf has seized on the Kashmir issue as key to his political longevity. Thousands of soldiers have been killed in two wars and unending skirmishes in the region, but no leader has shown the political fortitude to call an end to the fighting.
The Kashmir conflict is especially perilous in light of nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, and Secretary of State Powell is expected to use his upcoming visit to New Delhi and Islamabad to push for reconciliation between the countries.
A détente would also help ease Pakistan’s anxiety over a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan, should the current U.S. airstrikes destabilize that government. Musharraf has been critical of U.S. support for the anti-Taliban opposition forces, called the Northern Alliance, which have received funding from India.
At home, Musharraf’s handling of anti-U.S. protests has been tough, but not as heavy-handed as it might have been. Under the president’s orders, police did not enforce a long-standing ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people. Instead, government officials say, Musharraf allowed protests to go ahead after the U.S. strikes began, hoping demonstrators would blow off steam. Indeed, the protests diminished with each passing day.
Musharraf did order the detention of several hard-line religious leaders, pro-Taliban Pakistani clerics who called for the protests and a jihad, or holy war, against the United States. They are now under house arrest.
Beefed-up security has deterred further demonstrations. Crack police and army units patrol the boulevards of the capital, gun turrets mounted on their open-topped jeeps. Soldiers have constructed sandbag bunkers in front of government buildings, including the president’s office, the foreign ministry and the parliament.
While the streets of Pakistan begin to resemble the military regime many expected when Musharraf stormed to power two years ago, most Pakistanis still hold a generally favorable view of the general’s tenure. The population’s opinion of the airstrikes, however, is another matter. A recent poll by NNI, a Pakistani wire service, said 70 percent of Pakistanis oppose strikes against the Taliban.
At a market in downtown Islamabad, fruit trader Mohammed Khan echoed that sentiment.
“Attacks on our Muslim brothers in Afghanistan are bad,” Khan said. “But there is lots of pressure on our government. We have to do what is good for our country.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Pakistan.