Musharraf Walks Tightrope in War on Terrorism

Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism, and the continuing presence of extremists in the country are once again in the spotlight after a foiled London bombing plot. President Pervez Musharraf is performing a balancing act: cooperating with the West while accommodating religious extremists.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Since September 11th, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been a partner in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. His country is expected to help hunt down al-Qaida and the Taliban, but this draws criticism at home from political opponents who see him as a puppet of Western governments.

Musharraf's precarious position is once again in the spotlight with Pakistan's reported role in helping to uncover the alleged London terror plot.

To discuss Musharraf's balancing act, we turn to Teresita Schaffer, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in Pakistan and is a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. She's now director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Ambassador Schaffer, thanks for coming in.

Ms. TERESITA SCHAFFER (Center For Strategic and International Studies): My pleasure.

ELLIOTT: Where is the domestic pressure on President Musharraf coming from?

Ms. SCHAFFER: (unintelligible) is the real opposition - are two non-religious parties, both of which produced prime ministers during the 1990s.

But there is also a conglomeration of religious parties, which have in some respects been the opposition, but in some respects been political allies. And within that group of religious parties, as well as outside the strictly political arena, there are a lot of people who are very dubious about this idea of cracking down on Islamic militants, because they see the same Islamic militants, first of all, as good Muslims, and secondly, as forces that have been used by the Pakistani state to pursue objectives a lot of them care about, both in Kashmir against India, and more recently in Afghanistan.

ELLIOTT: What's been the reaction in Pakistan to the country's role in helping uncover this terror plot, or alleged terror plot in London.

Ms. SCHAFFER: Among the people who affiliate themselves with the secular parties, there is a lot of concern that Pakistan is once again in the spotlight in connection with a terrorist plot.

When you talk to people who are connected with the religious parties, you'll get a number of people who don't believe that Pakistan really is involved, who believe that this is just a way of bad mouthing Muslims.

You get a number of people who believe that this is a way for the West to put Pakistan down compared to India. So you have some of that view still in circulation.

ELLIOTT: How important is Musharraf's relationship with the United States?

Ms. SCHAFFER: It's extremely important for both the United States and for him. This is the one thing that he can clearly tell the Pakistani people he has done for them.

There is a lot of aid that moves as a result of this relationship. And the relationship with the United States has provided a measure of international respectability which Pakistan was otherwise having trouble maintaining.

It's important for the United States because even though there are some doubts about how far Musharraf is willing to go, there's no question that his government's cooperation has made possible some very important developments.

What we've all heard about recently, of course, is the arrest of some people involved in the alleged airplane bombing plot. But I'd like to underline another thing, which is that on two occasions in the past month there has been news that Pakistan has arrested significant numbers of Taliban operatives. Al-Qaida operatives, yes; but Taliban operatives is a new development, and one that could be significant if it continues.

ELLIOTT: Ambassador Teresita Schaffer is Director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International studies in Washington D.C.,

Thank you for coming in to speak with us.

Ms. SCHAFFER: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

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