On the Edge: A Nation with Nukes

On the Edge: A Nation with Nukes
It was George W. Bush on the phone. His language was friendly but firm as he asked President Pervez Musharraf on Sept. 11 if Pakistan could help hunt down Osama bin Laden. The choices facing Musharraf were stark: if he refused, America would consider it the worst kind of betrayal, and Pakistan would suffer harsh consequences. If he agreed, there would be enormous trouble at home; many Pakistanis believe bin Laden is not a terrorist but a true warrior of the Islamic faith who must be shielded from the U.S. at all costs. Friends say that Musharraf, 58, a low-key soldier with a neatly clipped mustache and tolerant views, was aghast at the suicide attacks. He did not hesitate. “I’ll face tremendous difficulties, but I’ll support you,” he told Bush.

Musharraf’s difficulties began even before any U.S. armed forces arrived. Fanned by the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan and a Muslim insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir, Islamic extremism has spread across Pakistan. Musharraf now risks making himself deeply unpopular, even loathed, by siding with the U.S. Protesters have already taken to the streets.

Musharraf is not given to exaggeration, so Pakistanis were stunned when a visibly tense President, in a Sept. 19 televised speech, compared Pakistan’s current predicament with the devastating 1971 civil war, in which Bangladesh fought free and the country was split in two. Unless Musharraf acts skillfully, hard-line religious forces could rise against his military juntawhich came to power in an October 1999 coup.

The core of Pakistan’s predicament is economic. Years of neglect by corrupt politicians have dragged 30% of the population below the poverty linenearly double the level of the past decadeand created an abiding dissatisfaction with democracy, perfect conditions to breed extremism. With a takeover by the fundamentalists, as one liberal Pakistani remarked, “We’ll become another Afghanistanbut with electricity.” And nukes.

Already, some clerics, especially among the rifle-wielding Pashtun tribesmen of the northwest frontier, are calling for a holy war against America. They are of the same tribe as the Taliban across the border. Tribesmen believe that Musharraf is breaking their strict code of Pashtunwali, in which honor and revenge are paramount. In the village of Shakot, gunsmith Aziz Khan glanced up from a lathe as he bored holes to craft a homemade Kalashnikov rifle and warned, “In our culture, we give our baby son an unloaded pistol to play with in the cradle, so that he becomes acquainted with guns. Every man and boy will defend bin Laden and the Taliban against America. It would be dishonorable not to protect him.” Among Musharraf’s first tasks in coming weeks will be to ensure the support of Pakistan’s 587,000-strong armed forces. Many lower-ranking officers, incensed at the corruption of their superiors over the years, have fallen under the sway of extremists who advocate a Taliban-style cleansing for Pakistan. “The nightmare of any officer is that he must order his men to fire on a bunch of mullahs leading a mob. Would they obey?” asked a brigadier.

In an “intense and focused” four-hour meeting Sept. 14 with his regional corps commanders, Musharraf drew a grim picture of what would happen if he rebuffed the Americans: a possible U.S. air strike against Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons installations, a declaration that Pakistan was a terrorist state because it backed the Kashmir militants, and a cutoff in international loans. Pakistan, although a longtime U.S. ally, was being squeezed by American economic and military sanctions issued in response to its nuclear arms program. Musharraf was evidently able to convince the generals. For now. On Saturday, the U.S. waived those sanctions.

Musharraf understands the risks. He confided to a gathering of newspaper editors that the best he can do is choose the path of least destruction for Pakistan. In Pakistani-U.S.talks, neither side has raised any question of a payoff for Pakistan. “It would seem like we were putting a price on Osama’s head,” says a Pakistani official. In the short run, though, the U.S. plans to lift economic and military sanctions, and it may lean on the International Monetary Fund to release emergency funds and reschedule loans that Pakistan desperately needs.

During his army career, Musharraf gained a reputation as a masterful tactician with lousy follow-through. His 1999 coup was a perfect example. It was bloodless and artfully executed, but his first months in power were marked by contradictions. As a tactician, Musharraf realizes that he has to crack down on religious extremists. The weeks ahead will reveal whether he may have left it too late.