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Sept. 11 Changed US-Pakistan Relationship - 2002-09-10

Before the September 11 attacks in the United States, Pakistan's military leader President Pervez Musharraf was considered a pariah for taking power by coup. The Pakistan government was also heavily criticized for its close ties with the Taleban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, where the main suspect in the terror attacks, Osama bin Laden, was living. But now, President Musharraf's essential cooperation this year in the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war has made him one of America's most important allies in the Muslim world.

Under enormous pressure from the United States, President Musharraf quickly threw his support behind the war on terrorism last year, and promised "unstinting" cooperation. He opened Pakistan's skies and air bases for the American-led military campaign against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan.

Nearly overnight, analysts say, Pakistan's government transformed itself from pariah to staunch ally of Western governments. "All of a sudden, the military government that everybody else had been putting pressure on, the United States, the EU [European Union] and the Commonwealth, withdrew that pressure," said Samina Ahmed, project director of the Islamabad office of the International Crisis Group, a political consulting firm. "The military government became everybody's darling - diplomatic support, money, everything. It's like Father Christmas came to town for the military government."

For joining the war on terrorism, Pakistan won crucial economic aid to head off the threat of a debt crisis. Many liberals here and the public at large accepted President Musharraf's decision to abandon Afghanistan's Taleban, which was considered by many in the global community to be a government that hosted terrorists. They understood that there was no choice for Pakistan in the face of President Bush's threat "either you are with us or against us."

"Had on the 13 of September Musharraf said, look I am not with you, I am opposed to you, Musharraf would have been the worst person humanity had ever come across," said Professor A.H. Nayyar, a research fellow at Islamabad's independent Sustainable Development Institute of Policy.

But President Musharraf's international rehabilitation has come at a price. Islamic parties in Pakistan were outraged by the ease with which he dumped the Taleban. They took to the streets to condemn the government.

For decades Pakistan had relied on these parties to further state policy. First, in the war against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. And now, in the ongoing proxy war against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The anti-government demonstrations fizzled out after a while. But nearly a year later, Pakistan faces a terrorist threat from the same extremist groups it once nurtured. Dozens of people, including foreigners, have been killed in a series of terrorist attacks on Christian and Western targets in Pakistan. Authorities blame supporters of the Taleban and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

So now President Musharraf is facing his own terrorist threat at home. In a speech last month, he vowed to eliminate extremist and militant organizations from the country.

"We have been at the forefront of the international war on terrorism," said Mr. Musharraf then. "We stand firmly committed to root out this scourge so that the world is a safer place to live in. At home, an insignificant minority has held the entire nation hostage to their misconceived views of Islam and fanatical acts of terrorism. We all have to put in a joint effort to root out those who are maligning our religion and tarnishing the image of Pakistan."

With the focus on the war on terror, little is mentioned now about Mr. Musharraf's undemocratic tenure. International criticism was muted when the President Musharraf, who came to power by coup, unilaterally amended to constitution to enhance his own power despite pledges to return the country to democracy. Elections he promised in October do not apply to him. He can dissolve the elected parliament and he will stay in office another five years.

Most political parties here have criticized President Musharraf's moves as undemocratic to little avail. But, says analyst Samina Ahmed, there is a wartime mentality where certain principles are subjugated to the greater goal defeating the enemy, which in this case is terrorism. Ms. Ahmed believes this is short-sighted.

"It's in the interest of the international community to have a stable Pakistan," she explained. "It's in the interest of the Pakistani people to have a democracy. The two things go hand in hand. But 9/11 [September 11] somehow changed international priorities, and perhaps its about time that the international community reconsiders those priorities to understand this is not an iron ball situation. Support for democracy in Pakistan is support for the war against terrorism."

Ms. Ahmed says the United States missed an opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions in Pakistan following September 11. But instead, she said, American leaders preferred to back the military dictatorship because they needed a stable Pakistan to help in the war on terrorism.