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Pakistan's Political Bind - 2001-10-06

Pakistan is prepared to support the U.S. effort to seek out suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding out in neighboring Afghanistan. But the support from the country's military ruler is reluctant.

Offering to help the United States track down Osama bin Laden is not a popular move with everyone in the world's second most populous Muslim country. In some quarters in Pakistan - particularly in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, both of which border Afghanistan - he is a hero, not a villain.

So, President Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler, is in a difficult spot. If he helps the United States, he places himself at grave political risk from radical Islamists. If he does not, he risks having Pakistan, the only country in the world that still recognizes the Taleban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers, labeled a supporter of terrorism.

As if that all were not enough, Pakistan, which has hosted millions of Afghan refugees ever since the Soviet invasion of 1979, now has thousands more Afghans clamoring at the border to be allowed in.

Brian Cloughley, a retired Australian army colonel, spent five years as the military attache in Pakistan, and knows General Musharraf well. The author of a history of the Pakistani army, Colonel Cloughley says General Musharraf will help the United States as much as he can, but wants U.S. officials to understand the enormous risk he is taking by doing so. "Musharraf is willing to go a very, very long way in supporting it, but he is not, for obvious reasons, going to shout that from the rooftops," said Colonel Cloughley. "I think that the recent U.S. mission to Pakistan was given remarkably concrete assurances. And they based [them] on the fact that, 'yes, we will help you to every extent, but you've got to understand, I've got a problem,' says Musharaf. 'I've got a problem domestically, and I can't make this whole agreement public.'"

General Musharraf seized power in 1999, ousting then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for alleged corruption. He later named himself president.

Religious-based parties have traditionally garnered only a tiny fraction of votes, usually between one and three percent of the vote. But their power has traditionally come from the streets, where they can mobilize thousands of people for demonstrations or general strikes.

After the September 11 attacks, radical Islamic groups in Pakistan immediately charged that Osama bin Laden was being unjustly accused by the United States. However, analysts say General Musharraf was apparently emboldened to help the U.S. effort, when street rallies organized by militants drew only minimum response. Colonel Cloughley says General Musharraf must now hope for a speedy resolution of the Osama bin Laden matter. The longer it drags on, he says, the more anger will build against the United States and General Musharraf. "He's got to keep a lid on all this while, at the same time, assisting the U.S. to the best of his ability, which he is undoubtedly doing, in order for a very quick solution in Afghanistan," he explained. "The longer this goes on, the more difficult for Musharraf this is going to be. He's a strong man, but he can't last forever, if there are increasing pressures. And to a great degree, this depends on speedy resolution by the U.S."

On Thursday, Pakistan announced that evidence presented to General Musharraf by the United States would be sufficient to charge Osama bin Laden in a court of law, a big step in U.S. efforts to rally support in the Islamic world for any military action against the bin Laden network.

Gary Thomas spent four years as the VOA correspondent in Pakistan.