Musharraf Bets On America

As America fired the first missiles yesterday at targets within Afghanistan, Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf moved quickly to hold up his end of the operation, leaving no doubt about whose side he was on.

On Sunday, Musharraf purged top military brass of hardliners: Islamist-leaning generals were either kicked upstairs or forced out. The president also appointed Gen. Eshanul Haq the new head of the country's intelligence services, InterService Intelligence (ISI), replacing Lt. General Mahmoud Ahmed, who resigned. ISI had been the architect of Pakistan's intervention in Afghanistan, the organization that groomed the Taliban and helped the regime win-and keep-power. Just last month, the hapless Mahmoud had gone to Washington to persuade the Bush administration to engage with the Taliban. It was about the worst possible mission to be pressing on the 11th of September.

The military and intelligence house-cleanings are the latest in a series of bold moves by Pakistan's president. When the crisis first broke out, one Western diplomat called Musharraf "the world's weakest dictator." But he has moved forcefully since then, turning the country's foreign policy an abrupt 180 degrees, from active support and patronage for the Taliban to complete support for Washington. Musharraf sided with Washington so quickly that many middle ranking officials were caught unaware.

Musharraf's strategy is risky policy. While he's consolidated his power over the military for the moment, if unrest in the streets becomes unmanageable, the armed forces may decide that he's gone too far. Dictatorships in Pakistan are, ultimately, collegial things. At a press conference in Islamabad on Monday morning, Musharraf, was candid and tough in the face of withering questioning, insisting that street protests would not get out of control. "Only a handful of people in Pakistan would support the Taliban and come out on the streets and support them," he said. Meanwhile, he put his faith in the Americans. "The United States understands the problems facing Pakistan and has assured me assistance is forthcoming," he said. "They will keep our concerns in mind, I am 110 percent sure. Otherwise I would not have gone along with them."

Television images of street protests suggested a population on the rampage. In fact, by Pakistani standards, the numbers were small; a couple thousand demonstrators in Quetta and in Peshawar. Both areas are heavily made up of Pashtun tribals--the ethnic group that dominates in the ranks of the Taliban. Quetta did verge on going out of control; crowds of fundamentalists burned down movie theaters (for showing Western films), banks, and several UN offices, including the UNHCR and UNICEF. The Army was out in force, but for the most part, the police managed to restore order. In Islamabad and nearby Rawalpindi, demonstrations were also relatively small. In all those places, they were mainly attended by activists of the small fundamentalist party, Jamiat-i-Islami, whose leader Faz-lur Rahman, has been placed under house arrest. In national elections, Islamic parties typically draw very small vote totals, around 5 percent.

At the Afghan embassy in Islamabad today, the Taliban's ambassador, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, boasted that his military had shot down one or maybe even four or five enemy aircraft--the numbers and details seemed to vary with each questioner. And he warned America to recall the fate of Britain in its unsuccessful colonial attempts to subdue Afghanistan, or, more recently, the experience of what he called "the Red Dragon," Russia. "This is not something new in Afghanistan's experience," he said. But now that war had begun, the ambassador was no longer so coy about whether or not Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is there, he said, and would stay there.