Musharraf on the Spot

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Pakistani President Gen. Musharraf addresses his troops

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Pakistan's vocal Islamic extremist groups already despise him. All the reasons Musharraf's stature has risen in the West — his cooperation in the war on terror, his withdrawal of support for the Taliban and his closing of Pakistan's borders to fleeing al-Qaeda fighters — make up the short list of why so many Pakistanis feel betrayed by the general. A nation plagued with a shaky economy and no safety net for the legions of unemployed and impoverished is fertile ground for fundamentalists and jihadis. "We aspire to be a nation that is free, independent and just," says Syed Munawar Hasan, secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party. Musharraf, quite reasonably, fears the potential of an unleashed religious right.

That pent-up anger is on display at Lahore's Shahudha mosque, where afternoon prayers have just let out and dozens of men in skullcaps are milling in the afternoon sun. As they part to make way for a phalanx of policemen who are dispersing the crowd, they grumble about the President. "He cannot survive," says Hafiz Mazhar Liblani, "and if he sells out Kashmir, he will pay the price." Liblani has trained as a militant in a Pakistani-run camp and vows that he is ready to carry the jihad to Kashmir when necessary. That issue is a snarling point for Indians who regularly accuse Pakistan of training, equipping and inserting terrorists into Kashmir. Although Musharraf has in the past denied that Pakistan sponsors militants, it has in fact helped establish training camps for Kashmiri insurrectionists and facilitated their crossing the Line of Control. India fears that 2,000 or more al-Qaeda fighters who have fled Afghanistan are currently in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, waiting to cross the Line of Control to take up jihad inside Indian Kashmir. While plenty of Kashmiris and Pakistani jihadis were trained by Afghan war veterans, there is no evidence that al-Qaeda is planning any action in Kashmir. "I don't think there's that much fidelity to the reports," says a senior U.S. official. Regardless of who the terrorists are, India is demanding that Pakistan stop the incursions. For the moment, at least, Musharraf says he will comply.

While South Asia broils, Musharraf appears to be keeping cool as he stares down the Indian threat and seeks to buttress domestic support. Renowned as a fine tennis and squash player, he moves with athletic self-assurance, projecting sturdy confidence during his frequent turns at the podium. Those who know him insist that the aplomb is real and that his composure stems from his belief that India doesn't enjoy the sort of military superiority that experts assert and will shy away from war. Musharraf claims that along the border areas, Pakistan can match India man for man, tank for tank, jet for jet. That could leave Vajpayee with the unpalatable option of allowing a limited engagement in Kashmir to expand into a costly ground war along the wider border, something fraught with the potential of nuclear escalation.

The U.S., for its part, has been pressing Musharraf to make good on a pledge he made on Jan. 12 to curtail the Kashmiri militants and crack down on extremist groups that had been promoting terrorism. As a result, the groups Musharraf banned, which after the January speech merely changed their names and bank-account numbers, went further underground. Whether Musharraf has control over these groups remains doubtful. "Our objective is death to India by a thousand cuts. And we believe Kashmir will break the back of the camel and will result in the disintegration of the whole of India," says a top commander of the militant organization formerly known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, now called al-Dawa.

The first wisps of the monsoon finally doused the extreme heat on the subcontinent late last week, allowing the masses to return to a semblance of a normal life. It will be a month before the full monsoon and its cooling rains sweep into Pakistan, however, leaving extremists plenty of idle time to plot revenge against India and ratchet up the pressure on their President.

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