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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 13:37 GMT
Musharraf: A risky time to travel?
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf
Analysts agree that the general is plotting the right course
Daniel Lak

President Pervez Musharraf's foreign tour will take him to New York to address the General Assembly session of the United Nations on 10 November, after stop-offs in Paris and London.


We support our president but how long can he let them attack, using our air bases and our territorial air space, how many children have to die?

Islamabad stockbroker

It is his first trip outside Islamabad since the 11 September attacks on America.

In theory, it is a risky time to go abroad with Islamic groups in Pakistan engaged in violent opposition to the President's support for US aims in Afghanistan.

But analysts agree almost universally that the general - once shunned around the world as a military dictator - is doing the right thing at the moment.

'Balancing act'

Phrases like "balancing act", "walking the tightrope", even "a nation on the edge" have been appearing in the Pakistani and international media as reporters attempt to sum up President Musharraf's position since 11 September.

Donald Rumsfeld and General Musharraf
US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was the latest foreign dignitary to visit
But in fact, he seems to have strengthened his position at home, not least because he has eased out Islamist and ideological anti-Western generals from his de-facto military cabinet, the top command of the Pakistan army.

And certainly his standing in the world has risen immeasurably since the attacks in New York and Washington.

Consider that the general was largely shunned in western capitals before 11 September.

The Americans, Europeans and others had imposed tough economic sanctions after he came to power in a coup against an elected government in October 1999.

President Musharraf was not welcome in the company of his fellow international leaders.

Now few restrictions remain on trade and investment with his country, and he is rubbing shoulders with foreign dignitaries including Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder and Colin Powell.

In New York, the general will sit down with his US counterpart, George W Bush.

If such diplomatic successes are an indication of stability, then this country has little to fear.

Volatile opinions

But nothing is certain, and much depends on US actions in Afghanistan.

United Nations General Assembly
President Musharraf is due to address the UN on 10 November
It is generally agreed that violent opposition to the military campaign across the border is confined to a noisy, extremist minority.

President Musharraf says "the vast majority" of Pakistanis are with him, and that is probably true.

But that body of opinion is worried, in some cases desperately so.

These are people who will probably never take to the streets, and at the moment, they are denied the right to vote for a national leader.

Politically, they want the best for their country and Afghanistan, and they want General Musharraf to succeed.

But they recognise that things are extremely fluid and in many ways beyond the Pakistani president's control.

Dichotomy

Commentators mostly manage to express this apparent dichotomy.

They say the president's support for the Americans is "necessary", sometimes even conceding that it was a risky move.


There is no doubt that Pakistan's military ruler-turned-president is widely backed within his own country

They are also critical of the Americans for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the failure of the bombing to produce visible results and the relentlessness of the attacks on a neighbour.

They also fear the influx of more and more Afghan refugees.

Their country hosted three million exiles from across the border during the war in the 1980s.

People say the Afghans brought with them a gun culture, religious extremism and the drugs trade - a harsh and somewhat unfair assessment, but a widely-held feeling nonetheless.

There is solid national support for President Musharraf's refusal to allow any but the neediest Afghan refugees into the country at present.

There is no doubt that Pakistan's military ruler-turned-president is widely backed within his own country.

Even his restrictions on extreme Islamist political protest are seen as necessary for public order to be maintained.

Official version questioned

But the Pakistani public is asking serious questions.

"A lot of us are rediscovering that we are Muslims as well as people with western attitudes about women, clothes, money and a modern country," said Ali, a western-educated stockbroker sitting with his friends in a restaurant in the capital Islamabad.

Tony Blair with General Musharraf
The general will visit Tony Blair in London on his way to the UN
"The more we see bombs rain down on civilians, the more we oppose the Americans," he said.

"We support our president but how long can he let them attack, using our air bases and our territorial air space, how many children have to die?"

Ali, like many in Pakistan, does not believe the official version of events that the Americans are making only minimal use of Pakistani facilities to attack Afghanistan.

The answer to questions like the one Ali asks is closely bound up with the future popularity of President Pervez Musharraf - Pakistan's man of the moment.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | Americas
Profile: Donald Rumsfeld
25 Oct 01 | South Asia
Rumsfeld: 'We'll get Bin Laden'
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
04 Nov 01 | South Asia
US strikes key Taleban positions
04 Nov 01 | Middle East
Taleban 'offered Bin Laden to Saudis'
04 Nov 01 | Americas
CIA office 'lost in terror attack'
04 Nov 01 | South Asia
More US soldiers sent into Afghanistan
04 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan outlines unease
04 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Blair hosts mini-summit
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