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Pakistan's President Walks Tightrope Over Terrorism


After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on U.S. soil, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf pledged to clean out terrorist sanctuaries in his country. But, four years later, critics charge the Pakistani effort has not been what it could be. The entwined issues of terrorism and Islamic extremism have put the Pakistani leader in an awkward position.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly asserted that his government's aggressive efforts against terrorists, particularly along the Pakistan-Afghan border, are bearing fruit.

"Their back has been broken," said President Musharraf. "About 700 foreigners have been caught, and they are on the run. Their sanctuaries, their command and control bases, their logistic bases, their communication bases - all destroyed."

Since he made those comments earlier this year, critics have accused Mr. Musharraf of not doing enough to curb the Islamic extremists in his country who many analysts believe are the recruiters, trainers, and financiers of religious-based terrorism. At a recent Washington forum, former ambassador Dennis Ross, who was U.S. special envoy on the Arab-Israeli peace process, said Mr. Musharraf's actions do not always match his rhetoric.

"His tone, his speeches, have actually been superb," said Mr. Ross. "His call for enlightened moderation is extremely important. But these tend to be speeches which rarely get followed up by a systematic approach on his part."

Former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Elizabeth Jones says Mr. Musharraf is struggling to strike the right balance that will satisfy both the United States and the Islamist movement at home.

"The difficulty for him all along has been to find the balance between staying in power, and doing the kind of work, the heavy-duty kind of work that is necessary to help us go after terrorists, but more importantly, to get control of its own society," she explained.

Alan Kronstadt, a South Asian affairs analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says that successive Pakistan governments prior to Mr. Musharraf's have used radical Islamist groups as a political trump card to further domestic or foreign policy ends, particularly in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

"They made use of mujahedin, they made use of extremist Islamic elements, militants, and later supported the Taleban, which took control of Kabul in '96. And this again was all seen as part and parcel of forwarding Pakistan's foreign policy interests in Afghanistan," he noted. "And the top level policy reversal has clearly not trickled down to all elements of Pakistan's security apparatus."

Islamic religious parties in Pakistan, some of which have expressed open sympathy for al-Qaida and the Taleban, have grown in political power. An alliance of six Islamic religious parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) controls outright the state government of one of Pakistan's four provinces and is the dominant partner in the ruling coalition of another. Radical sympathizers are also scattered in positions in the federal government.

Mr. Kronstadt says Mr. Musharraf cannot afford to alienate the religious parties, but at the same time, the Islamic factions also have to be careful not to go too far in their protests because if they do they risk being banned by Mr. Musharraf.

"Musharraf is viewed to a wide extent in Pakistan as acting in behalf of the United States and not necessarily on behalf of Pakistan's national interest," he said. "So in that regard, the Islamist parties with whom he has had to make what is called a sort of unholy alliance can fire up their own street power by pinning Musharraf as a puppet, a so-called puppet, of the United States. But at the same time, the MMA has relied on Musharraf to remain in power."

Mr. Musharraf has been criticized by democracy advocates for not relinquishing his one-man rule. But U.S. officials have been reluctant to join the critical chorus because, analysts say, of fears of any instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

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