Can This Man Survive?

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Pervez Musharraf at his office in Islamabad

Before the presidential motorcade passed through, traffic on the street was blocked off. But the plotters had thought of that. They had parked their two explosives-packed vehicles in advance at separate gas stations on Jhanda Chichi Road in Rawalpindi. As the convoy carrying Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf approached, the suicide drivers sped into action. A guard stepped into the path of one vehicle, costing him his life and causing the assassin's van to crash into a car in the motorcade and instantly explode; within a minute, the other vehicle blew up just yards from Musharraf's armored Mercedes, shattering its windshield. In all, 16 people were killed, including the bombers, security guards and bystanders. The President was unhurt in the Christmas Day attack, but he was visibly shaken when he appeared on TV six hours later. Just 11 days earlier, he had narrowly escaped when would-be assassins blew up a bridge near his residence in Rawalpindi about 30 seconds after his car crossed it. He might have been saved by an electronic device that jams radio frequencies used to detonate bombs remotely.

From the moment U.S. leaders turned to Musharraf after 9/11 as a principal ally in the war on terrorism, they have recognized the fragility of the support he offers as the disputed leader of a coup-prone nation in which Islamic extremism is on the rise. By turning on the Taliban, allowing U.S. forces to launch war on Afghanistan from Pakistan and continuing to help the Americans as they rounded up Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, Musharraf has earned powerful enemies. But never have the threats to him been more evident than now, three months after al-Jazeera aired an audiotape in which Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, exhorted followers to overthrow the Pakistani leader. The two attempts on Musharraf's life, plus another assassination plot uncovered by Pakistani authorities in April 2002, have left U.S. officials deeply troubled. So invested is the U.S. in Musharraf, American officials are providing technical assistance and intelligence to help protect him. In Pakistan, says Senator Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "Musharraf is the steadiest force that there is or that we could hope for."

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Pakistani investigators suspect that al-Qaeda was behind the Dec. 14 attack, but any of a number of local extremist groups could have provided the manpower. Musharraf has invited a new wave of antipathy from radicals by banning some of their organizations and by softening his stance toward India, particularly on the question of the disputed territory of Kashmir. He has declared a unilateral cease-fire along the line dividing Pakistani and Indian forces in Kashmir and has suggested that he may be willing to relent on Pakistan's long-held demand that Kashmir's future be determined by a plebiscite. Pakistani investigators identified one of the Dec. 25 attackers as a 23-year-old militant from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir after he left a gruesome calling card at the bomb site: his face, which was blown off intact.

Some U.S. officials see the efforts to kill Musharraf as actually working in Washington's favor. Confides a Bush Administration official: "Frankly, the assassination attempts are another indication that Musharraf is going in the direction that we'd like him to"--that is, against Pakistan's extremists. "This could very well precipitate a stronger crackdown."

But the U.S. can't count on Musharraf escaping future attacks. In the event of his death, the law prescribes that he be replaced by Senate chairman Mohammad Mian Soomro, an influential member of Musharraf's party, until an election is held. But given its dominant role in Pakistani politics, the military could well seize power. That might keep Pakistan's nuclear weapons safe. The program has always been controlled by the generals, even during civilian governments. A bigger worry for the U.S. war on terrorism is that a successor to Musharraf might logically conclude that taking on Islamic radicals is too hazardous to one's health.