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Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf
One-time Coup Leader Becomes Key United States Ally

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Colin Powell and General Pervez Musharraf

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, Oct. 16, 2001
Photo: Reuters © 2001

The U.S. anti-terrorism campaign has made Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's job a singularly uncomfortable one. Even as he wins praise from the international community for backing the United States, Musharraf's stance is sending many Pakistanis into the streets in protest. He leads the only country that still has diplomatic relations with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. At the same time, he has backed "sharp, targeted and short" strikes against the Taliban and provided logistical support to non-combat American U.S. ground forces.

General Musharraf was quick to condemn the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He called them "heinous acts" and urged the international community to "unite and resolutely fight this evil in all its forms." And as the Bush administration began building its coalition against terrorism, Musharraf's government acted as a go-between with the Taliban. He sent a delegation to pressure the Afghan government -- without success -- to extradite Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, supporting the U.S. in its campaign against a Muslim neighbor has its risks. Violent anti-American protests have erupted in some cities, including Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar. In response, Musharraf detained some of the country's leading pro-Taliban Muslim clerics. And he is struggling to control the power of fundamentalist religious parties and rein in what some call the "Talibanization" of Pakistani society.

Pakistan's pro-U.S. stand has brought immediate and tangible benefits from abroad. Sanctions have been lifted, some of Pakistan's foreign debt has been rescheduled and a stream of Western diplomats has traveled to Pakistan to show their appreciation for Musharraf's support. But international praise for Pakistan is not unanimous. The government in Islamabad came under fire from international aid agencies for closing Pakistan's border to Afghan refugees desperately fleeing the bombing.

Pakistan was a close ally of the United States during the Cold War, when India was a leader of the non-aligned nations bloc. But after the Cold war, as Pakistan got more involved with the Taliban and U.S.-India relations started to warm, U.S.-Pakistan relations suffered. The international community slapped economic sanctions on both Pakistan and India after they tested nuclear devices in May 1998, raising fears of a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region.

Pro-Taleban activists

Pro-Taliban activists in Karachi on Oct. 15, 2001.
Photo: Reuters © 2001

More sanctions followed Musharraf's October 1999 ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup. Like other powerful Pakistani military leaders over the past half-century, Musharraf came to power by seizing it from a civilian government widely viewed as ineffective. And like the others, Musharraf said he had acted reluctantly and would turn over power to a democratic government when the time was right.

"The armed forces have no intention to stay in charge any longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan," he said after the coup. The international community nevertheless condemned Musharraf, imposed sanctions on the country and unsuccessfully pressured the general to return Pakistan to civilian rule. Two years later, that still hasn't happened.

Musharraf was born in Delhi in 1943, four years before the birth of Pakistan itself. In 1947, Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India gained independence from Britain, in a sometimes bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines.

Like so many Muslims who migrated to the newly-created Pakistan, Musharraf moved with his family from India to Karachi during partition. He also lived for several years in Turkey. Before taking over Pakistan's top post, the general worked his way up through the ranks of the country's military.

General Musharraf consolidated his power base after a crisis over Kashmir in 1998. The region has been claimed by both India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain, and New Delhi accuses Pakistan of sponsoring Muslim militants who fuel insurgency in the Indian part of Kashmir. The two countries have gone to war twice over the territory in the past 50 years, and Indian and Pakistani troops fight sporadic gun battles across the cease fire line. The latest exchange of fire coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to both countries in mid-October.

In the 1998 crisis, Prime Minister Sharif initially pledged his full support for a military campaign that Pakistan's generals thought had a good chance of wresting some of Kashmir from India's control. Then, facing pressure from Washington, Sharif dramatically ordered a full withdrawal. His popularity plunged, and Musharraf's coup came a few months later.

Washington is now seeking both Indian and Pakistani support for its anti-terrorist campaign, but the tense relations between the nuclear rivals make that a difficult goal. Musharraf attended a July 2001 summit meeting with India's prime minister, which was considered a positive step. Nevertheless, the two leaders made little progress in resolving the dispute over Kashmir.

Musharraf now has new leverage. He knows he's key to the anti-terrorism efforts, and that the U.S.-led coalition wants to keep his relatively stable hand on the rudder of power in fractious Pakistan. In return, he's sure to push at least for a friendly post-Taliban government in Afghanistan and for more international support for his Kashmir position.

Other Resources

Government of Pakistan

Pakistan's United Nations Mission

Library of Congress country study on Pakistan

Human Rights Watch Report on Pakistan