President Pervez Musharraf's decision to replace the chief of Pakistan's military intelligence agency and demote key military leaders could herald a significant step away from Afghanistan's Taliban regime, experts say.
Coming on the eve of U.S. and British attacks on Afghanistan, the moves are being widely interpreted as a sign that Musharraf plans to use the global conflict to squelch Islamic militants in his country and strengthen his own secular government.
"This really shows the Islamic militants that the guys who have the guns do not like them," says Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Any question of an Islamic coup within the army is ruled out now, I think. There were some officers who favored more radical Islam, or at least wanted to use it to hold on to power. Now many of them are gone."
Musharraf announced the resignations of both the chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmad, and Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Muzaffar Usmani. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Aziz Khan has essentially been kicked upstairs, removed from the powerful position of corps commander and appointed to the ceremonial position of head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The moves are particularly significant because Ahmad, Usmani and Khan were key architects of Musharraf's rise to power in 1999, and their resignations would seem to strengthen Musharraf's grip on power in Pakistan.
"This is a momentous thing," Cohen says. "It would have been difficult if not impossible to bring this off before Sept. 11. This whole thing has revived the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and has made Musharraf indispensable. It's a sign of strength that he was able to move against these people, who were the very people who put him in power."
Musharraf tried to downplay the internal moves Monday, calling the changes "normal activity," and saying "it has no relation with the events that are taking place in Afghanistan. The changes had been contemplated for many months ... I think that the changes in the military hierarchy were necessary."
But Cohen said the changes were anything but ordinary. "This is not just a routine movement of people around. This is very significant in the way Musharraf governs. They made that decision earlier to move away from the Taliban. This is just the fallout from that decision. Some of those people [who were replaced] had been very close to the Taliban."
In fact, Ahmad led two Pakistani delegations to Afghanistan to try to persuade the Taliban government to hand over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. in the weeks since Sept. 11. Both of those missions failed.
The move is also a sign that Pakistan, under Musharraf's leadership, is hoping to reestablish its standing in the international community, at the expense of both the Taliban and its arch rival, India. Already, Pakistan has been rewarded for cooperating with the United States: The U.S. lifted 22-year-old sanctions it had imposed for Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. And while Pakistan remains the only country with formal diplomatic ties to the Taliban, Musharraf has managed to strengthen his country's once-faltering relationship with the United States, and reemerge as a critical U.S. ally in South Asia.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. policy had shifted toward India as America's main ally in South Asia, at the expense of our relationship with Pakistan. But all that has changed in the last four weeks. Because of its leaders' close ties to the Taliban, Pakistan has been able to provide U.S. intelligence sources with key information about the Taliban and its relationship to bin Laden.
The Taliban has long been backed by the ISI. The agency is responsible for determining much of Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan, according to the Federation of American Scientists. According to the FAS Web site, "ISI has links with Pakistani religious parties that provide volunteers for jihad in both Kashmir and Afghanistan."
As Musharraf continues to do all the right things, as far as the U.S. is concerned, Secretary of State Colin Powell is headed to India to help quell fears that the United States is abandoning its new relationship with India in favor of its rival, Pakistan.
"India has watched with growing alarm as Pakistan and the United States have become allies," the Associated Press reported Monday. "New Delhi has urged Washington to acknowledge that Pakistan harbors militants accused of killing thousands in India."
"The Indians are very nervous about this," Cohen says. "We now have a more normal relationship with Pakistan. I'm sure [Powell] is going there to caution both India and Pakistan about their nuclear programs and get these capped and under control, and to reassure the Indians that the new relationship with India still holds."
Musharraf also gave himself an indefinite extension as chief of army staff, and extended his term as president until next October, a move that raised some alarm in Pakistan.
"For the immediate future, the question remains unanswered as to what kind of democracy would be restored in October 2002," said the News, the Pakistani English language paper. "What is left to be seen is how long will the country continue to remain suspended in this political limbo."