A Fine Balance

When the United States went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan last week, Pakistan launched a simultaneous anti-Taliban campaign as well--within its own borders. President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, has made it clear he's ready to crack down on fundamentalists who try to undercut the government's support for the antiterror coalition. Last week he moved quickly to do that, placing the leaders of fundamentalist parties under house arrest, suppressing demonstrations and deporting Afghan refugees who took to the streets. All schools were closed on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Many madrasas, the religious schools that trained Afghanistan's Taliban, were shut down indefinitely. By the end of the week the military had managed to keep control in the streets. But it's clear that de-Talibanizing Pakistan--a country that has increasingly bowed to the will of a vocal fundamentalist minority in recent years--is going to be far from easy.

Given the fact that he leads a military regime, General Musharraf's first concern was his own military brass. Since 1979 the Army has promoted fundamentalism in Pakistani society, and since 1996 it has been the Taliban's biggest supporter abroad. So just as American planes started bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Musharraf mustered support among key generals to reshuffle the top command. One hard-liner, Lt. Gen. Muhammed Aziz, was shifted from his post as the power-ful corps commander in Lahore to a cere-monial position as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Most important, Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, the influential chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate--the country's CIA--was replaced with a moderate, Eshanul Haq. (Mahmood should have been in line for the powerful post of vice chief of staff of the Army, and resigned in protest when a more junior officer got it instead.) Mahmood had presided over Pakistan's military support for the Taliban, and though he changed his position on them after Sept. 11, military observers say he didn't change fast or far enough for Musharraf's liking. "Musharraf now has a team that is totally with him and totally committed," says retired Gen. Talat Massoud, a former chief of staff. "If anyone has different views, they are no longer in the Army."

At the same time, the general can lay claim to the support of mainstream political parties, most of which are otherwise bitterly opposed to his undemocratic rule. The largest demonstration in Karachi last week was sponsored by the Mutahida Qaumi Movement Party, which brought 20,000 supporters onto the streets to support the antiterrorism fight. Even the Pakistan People's Party, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who lives in exile while facing corruption charges at home, has voiced support for Musharraf. "All [mainstream] political parties are sup-porting what the government is doing," says Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman. "This has never been a very extremist society."

He has a point. Despite the influence they wield over national social policy, religious parties commonly draw only a few percentage points in elections in Pakistan. The loud and at times violent demonstrations that are broadcast daily by international news organizations tend to be small--none larger than 5,000 people in a country where mass protests of 100,000 are common. The government blames the unrest on a small group of hard-liners, dominated by Afghan refugees and stirred up by religious parties. In Quetta, which was racked by anti-American riots on Oct. 8, a much larger--and peaceful--rally was held by anti-Taliban royalists on the same day. Of the 150 arrests in Quetta, 130 of them were Afghan refugees--who were deported with their families within days, according to Rashid.

On the other hand, it's hard to gauge how far mainstream politicians speak for their constituencies, when they themselves no longer have much influence under Musharraf's regime. A Gallup poll commissioned in Pakistan by NEWSWEEK last week suggests that Musharraf has just barely managed to persuade most Pakistanis to support him: 51 percent approve of his decision to back the United States (box). But the depth of that support is extremely weak: 83 percent of Pakistanis sympathize with the Taliban (compared with only 3 percent for the United States). Only two weeks earlier, immediately after the Sept. 11 attack, Gallup soundings suggested only 40 percent support for the Taliban in Pakistan.

So Musharraf cannot rest easy. When American planes began arriving at two Pakistani air bases last week, in Jacobabad and Pasni, the government was quick to deny that any American troops were aboard. "It's a very dicey situation," says a former general who is close to Musharraf. "Things could still get out of control--and the longer it goes on, the worse it will get." Right now American and British war planners are refusing to set any time limit on military action, speaking of operations that could drag on into next summer. If that happens, it may be a good thing for the antiterror coalition that Pakistan is ruled by a friendly military dictatorship, rather than what could well be a hostile democracy.