Musharraf known for cool head
By TIMOTHY APPLEBY, The Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 20, 2001
He is widely described as a pragmatic nationalist, a hard-boiled, quick-minded soldier who picks his words carefully and stays cool under fire. And in his address last night to Pakistan's 140 million people, President Pervez Musharraf seemed to underline that reputation, urging reason instead of the emotive language of religious extremism.
Before seizing power in a bloodless 1999 coup, General Musharraf, 58, spent time as a commando during a long military career that included two wars against rival India. His hefty academic credentials include a degree from Britain's Royal College of Defence Studies, and he has earned particular praise for bridging differences between the Punjabi and Pathan officers who dominate Pakistan's 520,000-strong army. (The Pathan live in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they form the majority population.)
He recently promised that an election would be held in 2002, and most believed him. In July, he paid a fruitless but nonetheless historic visit to New Delhi in efforts to resolve the 12-year-old war between Jammu and Kashmir, where Pakistani-backed Islamic militants are battling India.
But nothing could have prepared the general for the situation he faces today, as an angry United States bears down on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, anxious to place the fugitive Osama bin Laden in its cross hairs.
The general's choices could hardly have been more stark: Assist the United States and risk major turmoil, both within Pakistan and along its rugged border with Afghanistan; or reject the U.S. request for the use of Pakistani airspace and perhaps military bases, which would likely mean international sanctions, economic meltdown and possibly even U.S. military strikes.
Gen. Musharraf yielded to the enormous pressure brought to bear by Washington.
But his decision, reiterated yesterday, was hugely difficult because it represented a swift U-turn in Pakistan's dealings with the Taliban. Pakistan is one of only three countries to recognize the rogue government, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and it was a key backer of the purist Taliban as it swept to power in the mid-1990s.
That support abruptly ended on the weekend and a stiff price tag is clearly attached. Pakistan's leading Islamic body, the Ulema Council, issued a fatwa (ruling) yesterday urging holy war against the United States and its allies if they attack Afghanistan.
As street protests continued, a poll found that nearly two out of three Pakistanis oppose U.S. intervention. And underpinning the concern about civil strife is the fact that, like neighbouring India, Pakistan is a nuclear power.
Conflict is nothing new to Gen. Musharraf, born in prepartition India in 1943. His family moved to Karachi when he was a child; he joined the military in 1964. He fought the Indian army in Punjab in 1965 and again, as a commando, in 1971.
After rising to the rank of army chief in October of 1998, he and his loyalists seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, vowing to expunge government corruption and stabilize Pakistan's cash-strapped, heavily indebted economy.
"I have to play a role in ensuring continuity and sustainability," Gen. Musharraf said of his country's future earlier this year. Thus, his willingness to help the United States in this crisis is undoubtedly rooted in long-term expediency.