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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 22:14 GMT 23:14 UK
Afghan crisis points up Pakistani divisions
Pakistani supporters of Bin Laden in Peshawar
Musharraf says the issue is purely one of anti-terrorism
Owen Bennett Jones

The 11 September attacks have thrown long-standing divisions within Pakistani society into sharp relief.

The country's religion-based parties - champions of militant Islam - have mounted a series of flamboyant anti-government protests.

The military has responded to their show of street power by insisting that the Islamists are a small minority without mainstream support.

But even if most Pakistanis have stayed away from the anti-government protests, many remain firmly opposed to American military strikes on Afghanistan.

Pakistan's pro-Taleban Afghan policy is now in tatters

They argue that the United States has not yet provided any evidence linking Osama Bin Laden to the attacks on New York and Washington and, they say, any attack on Afghanistan will inevitably lead to civilian casualties.

The military rulers fear that, when America does strike, popular opinion could move against them.

The splits within Pakistani society are mirrored within the army itself.

In the past, though, the army has managed to instil a strong sense of discipline within its ranks and there is, as yet, no sign that Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, faces significant opposition from junior officers.

Isolation over

On the diplomatic front, General Musharraf's decision to align himself with the American-led coalition against terrorism has already produced significant benefits for his military regime.

Some sanctions have already been lifted and the steady flow of high-powered Western visitors to Islamabad in recent days demonstrates that Pakistan's diplomatic isolation is over.

Shopkeepers in Quetta with poster supporting Bin Laden
Anti-US feeling is strong close to the Afghan border

Washington, which ever since General Musharraf's coup in 1999 has been demanding a timetable for the return to democracy, is now stressing the need to ensure his military regime is stable.

But for many Pakistanis, especially those who support the restoration of democracy, there is little sign that they will enjoy immediate direct benefit as a result of the general's international rehabilitation.

In the longer term, Pakistan could face painful diplomatic costs.

Pakistan's pro-Taleban Afghan policy is now in tatters and there is now the prospect of a hostile, anti-Pakistani government being installed in Kabul.

Some Pakistanis also complain that at some stage in the future the militants who fight the Indian forces in Kashmir could fall under Washington's definition of terrorists.

Loyalty test

Pakistan's military rulers are clearly concerned that their decision to back America could backfire.

Earlier this week they tried to answer the religious activists' rallies by organising a national "day of unity" in which government workers and others were encouraged to take to the streets in pro-government demonstrations.

Pro-government solidarity rally
Government supporters heard calls for national unity

The Islamists and the liberal element in Pakistan both sensed an opportunity.

The Islamists, who have never attracted more than 5% of the popular vote in Pakistan, are wondering whether they might be able to win wider backing when the American attacks come.

The liberals, meanwhile, hope that General Musharraf will be forced into a position in which he will confront the militant Islamists and expose their lack of popular support.

Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf
speaks to the BBC's Lyse Doucet
See also:

27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistanis rally for Musharraf
21 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan protests turn violent
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's tough choice
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Low key protests across Pakistan
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan Taleban talks fail
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Armed guards on Pakistan's flights
29 Sep 01 | South Asia
Quetta opinions divided on holy day
19 Sep 01 | Media reports
Text: Musharraf rallies Pakistan
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