Such good friends

Bush has made numerous concessions to Pakistan's Gen. Musharraf, whom he is counting on to deliver the al-Qaida goods before the election.

Published September 28, 2004 1:57PM (EDT)

Since throwing his weight behind the Bush administration after Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has successfully portrayed himself as an indispensable ally in the U.S.-led "war on terror." The killing by Pakistani security forces of a senior al-Qaida operative, Amjad Hussain Farooqi, is the latest manifestation of that supposed indispensability. Under U.S. pressure and after two attempts on his life last December, Gen. Musharraf has intensified the hunt for terrorists, particularly in provinces bordering Afghanistan.

But Pakistan's leader, who came to power in a 1999 coup and legitimized his rule through an unopposed referendum in 2002, remains a problematic partner for the West and a controversial figure at home. His ending of Pakistan's support for the Taliban and his backing for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan alienated Islamist parties. His decision to negotiate with India on Kashmir, formalized in January's Islamabad declaration, angered the jihadis and raised wider concerns about his intentions. Despite continuing worries domestically and in the West, Musharraf says democracy is flourishing in Pakistan. He points to local elections, the presence of women in government and relatively free speech and media.

Musharraf suggests most of his opponents are confined to the periphery of Pakistani society. "The extremists dislike me because I'm operating against them," he told the Washington Post last weekend. "We are changing the entire psyche of our society, which has been held hostage to extremist ideas. The vast majority are moderate, but they were voiceless. The entire mindset needs to be changed."

On all these issues, there are other views. Despite an upbeat meeting between Musharraf and the new Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at the U.N. last week, there are fresh allegations in India that Pakistan is overtly assisting militants in Kashmir.

On Afghanistan, some Western diplomats in Islamabad suspect elements within Pakistan's military Inter-Services Intelligence are happy to help track down al-Qaida but less keen on suppressing former Taliban proteges. This, it is argued, is because Pakistan, adhering to its long-established doctrine of "strategic depth" vis-à-vis India, wants a biddable regime in its rear in Kabul if Western forces leave. The Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, facing fraught presidential elections next month, has complained that Pakistan is not doing enough to curb resurgent Taliban attacks emanating from Pakistani soil. As with Indian claims about Kashmir, Musharraf rejects the charges. But questions persist about the extent to which he is actually in control.

New doubts about his commitment to democracy have been raised, meanwhile, by his suggestion that he may renege on an earlier promise to step down as army leader this year. The Musharraf conundrum is compounded by distorting U.S. priorities. For there can be little doubt, despite denials all around, that Pakistan is under tremendous pressure to catch or kill Osama bin Laden before the U.S. election on Nov. 2.

Only America's overriding political imperative explains President Bush's unquestioning stance in his recent bilateral meeting with Musharraf in New York. Bush did not press Pakistan's leader on democratic reform, on advancing the dialogue with India or on his relations with Karzai.

The U.S. president apparently ignored Musharraf's sympathetic attitude toward Iran's nuclear activities. He also skirted round the Pakistani leader's refusal to allow the U.S. to interview the head of the secret Pakistani nuclear weapons proliferation network, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Bush left unchallenged Pakistan's refusal to help in Iraq, where neutral Muslim troops are much needed. And he turned a blind eye to Musharraf's sharp criticism of the Iraq war and his implied call for the withdrawal of U.S. and British forces. Instead, according to U.S. officials, Bush made nice, focusing almost exclusively on the fight against al-Qaida and its elusive leader.

Between himself and Bush "there is a total understanding," said the indispensable Gen. Musharraf.

By Simon Tisdall

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