Bush Heads for Bin Laden Country

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Pakistan President Musharraf during his visit to the southern Baluchistan province last year

Jaded journalists have come to expect Pakistani announcements of new successes against al-Qaeda whenever President Pervez Musharraf is due to meet with a top U.S. official. And true to form, on Wednesday, just as President Bush was visiting Afghanistan and declaring that "I am confident [bin Laden] will be brought to justice," Pakistan announced that 45 Qaeda-aligned militants had been killed in a raid in the tribal badlands of Waziristan — where bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be operating. Announcements of victories against al-Qaeda highlight the primary reason the Bush Administration has been inclined to avoid confronting Musharraf over concerns ranging from democracy in Pakistan to the fact that its top nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, was revealed in 2004 to have been running a global supermarket for rogue states seeking nuclear weapons.

But whether or not A. Q. Khan — whom Pakistan will not allow the U.S. to question — is discussed during President Bush's one-day visit, not even the latest Qaeda bust is likely to deflect attention from the mounting problems facing Washington's shaky alliance with Musharraf. The Bush Administration has backed Musharraf on the basis that he is cooperating in the war on terror — even if not to the extent the U.S. demands — and that the alternatives are worse. But many secular liberals in Pakistan complain that Musharraf brandishes the jihadi threat to maintain military rule and suppress Pakistan's main moderate political parties, quite a far cry from the democratic values trumpeted by the Bush Administration. The jihadist element has long been nurtured by the Pakistani security establishment, which cultivated it during the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s (later helping the Taliban to seize power) and used it also to wage a proxy war against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Two decades after the onset of the Afghan jihad, radical Islamists are an established feature of Pakistani society, and increasingly difficult for the authorities to contain.

Certainly, Musharraf has plenty of incentive for going after the movement that has twice attempted to kill him. But bin Laden is a popular hero in Waziristan, where central government authority is weak, if not entirely nonexistent, the elected regional government is openly pro-Taliban, and Pakistani troops are on hostile terrain when they leave their bases in search of Qaeda fighters. Fierce armed opposition from the locals has significantly curtailed action against the jihadists.

Musharraf's insurgent problems have multiplied as well with the sharp escalation in operations by secessionist fighters in the southern province of Baluchistan, which stretches the resources available to the Pakistani military. In the cities, too, the pressure is mounting: Recent protests in Pakistan's cities over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were mostly directed at the U.S. and Musharraf's alliance with Washington, and the resulting deaths have inflamed anger.

The government was widely viewed as initially encouraging the cartoon protests as a way of reminding Washington of the extremist danger against which Musharraf is a bulwark, before cracking down when the protests turned against him. Even then, in the capital, the police proved unable to prevent a banned rally from going ahead. Some Pakistani analysts believe Musharraf is more vulnerable now than at any time since he seized power in a 1999 coup as he faces the combined challenges of foreign jihadists, tribal secessionists, indigenous Islamists and the liberal opposition.

Bush is slated to take in a "cricket event" in Pakistan on Saturday, and the country's most celebrated former cricket captain, Imran Khan, is also planning to rendezvous with the visiting U.S. President. But rather than guiding Bush through the nuances of the game, the cricketer-turned-opposition leader will be leading a protest march against the U.S. and its support for Pakistan's military regime. The urbane Imran's promise to rally middle-class liberals against Bush and Musharraf may be a sign of just how poorly the U.S. has fared in the battle of ideas in Pakistan. As for the battle against Al Qaeda, suffice it to say that while President Bush and Musharraf chat at the cricket event, both men will be acutely aware that somewhere not too far away bin Laden may be smiling yet again for a video camera.