Why Pakistan's Musharraf Can Count on U.S. Support

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General Pervez Musharraf

General Pervez Musharraf is ready to collect his reward. Pakistan's leader will meet with President Bush at the White House today, and he can expect considerable U.S. economic and political support to come his way for the strategic choices he has made since September 11. The U.S. will help, because the alternative is to let the government of a nuclear-armed state collapse.

Given a "with us or against us" ultimatum by the Bush administration last fall, Musharraf sided with the U.S. and embarked on a risky campaign to save his country from its two-decade drift towards Islamic extremism and economic collapse. He offered the U.S. military bases and intelligence support to wage war on the Taliban and stared down the resulting domestic Islamist backlash. Recognizing that the rot of extremism ran to the highest levels of his military and intelligence services, he risked alienating the institutions that had brought him to power by purging a number of Taliban supporters from the top brass. And earlier this year, under pressure from the U.S. and India following a terrorist attack on the Indian legislature in New Delhi, Musharraf launched a sweeping crackdown on domestic extremist groups, arresting thousands of activists. In the process, he articulated a vision of a modern Pakistan guided by the principles of religious tolerance and separation of church and state that won widespread applause among ordinary Pakistanis alarmed at the "Talibanization" of their society.

In Washington Musharraf's performance over the past five months has absolved him of the taint of seizing power in a military coup in 1999. His support is growing at home as well; there's little nostalgia among ordinary Pakistanis for the endemic corruption that characterized the decade of civilian rule that preceded the coup, and his stand against extremism is popular.

Now he needs Washington's help. His mission to remake Pakistani society remains a work-in-progress, and American support, both economic and political, remains critical. The kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl is simply the most high-profile example of the resilience of Pakistani extremism. The embarrassment for Musharraf in that case is compounded by the fact that Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime suspect who is now in police custody, is a British-born convicted kidnapper who moved to Musharraf's Pakistan early in 2000 after Kashmiri hijackers forced his release from an Indian prison.

Even more troubling are reports that some Pakistani military and intelligence officials continued to assist the Taliban even after the U.S. military campaign began. Also, a number of key Taliban leaders appear to have been hiding in western Pakistan since fleeing Afghanistan, and the current Afghan government fears the movement may be regrouping there, possibly with support from rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence service.

Nobody doubts Musharraf's commitment to eradicate the Taliban element in Pakistan. The persistence of entrenched pockets of extremism simply highlights the extent of the challenge he faces. The U.S. has thrown him essential lifelines in the form of debt rescheduling, economic aid and political patience and sympathy. And he's likely to get more of the same. Because nobody wants to contemplate the price of failure in a nuclear-armed state still crawling with extremists.