Pakistan's President Faces Political Pressures

Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, is — once again — in a tight spot.

The same man who, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, succumbed to U.S. pressure and made a U-turn on his support of the Taliban, is now facing another wrenching shift.

He's under massive pressure from both the United States and his arch-enemy India to crack down on fundamentalist groups that have, for years, used Pakistan as a base for launching attacks on Indian rule in the disputed province of Kashmir. This in the wake of the Dec. 13 suicide raid on the Indian parliament which killed 14 people, including the five gunmen.

India blames two Pakistani-based militant groups. It has demanded that Pakistan arrest and hand over the group's leaders. The crisis has sparked the largest military buildup on the border dividing the two nations in years (depending on who you ask, it's the biggest in 15 or 30 years).

Stuck in Tight Spot

The task in front of Musharraf is difficult for reasons that range from the personal to the political.

First, Musharraf must — again — ask his army and military intelligence service to turn on a dime. Government officials deny it, but most observers believe the Pakistani military has for years supported Islamic militant groups in their jihad against Indian rule in Kashmir. The apparent strategy was to make ruling Kashmir so painful and expensive that the Indians would simply give up.

Now, Musharraf is asking his army — the same army that has twice gone to war with India over Kashmir — to make a radical tactical change.

Second, Musharraf has to walk a political tightrope. Kashmir is an issue that incites nationalist passions in many parts of this country. It is a Muslim-majority province ruled largely by Hindu-majority India, and many here have deep sympathies for Kashmiris.

Third, Musharraf has had to make an internal shift. This is the general who, in 1999, led the Pakistani operation against Indian forces in Kashmir (an operation that ultimately failed). It's the same general who once said, "there are no other issues. There is just one issue: Kashmir."

Musharraf later seized control of Pakistan in a coup.

Taking Action

Despite all the obstacles, Musharraf is taking action. First, he froze the assets of the two groups implicated by India in the attack on the New Delhi parliament building. Then he put their leaders under arrest. Now he has ordered Pakistan's Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) agency to stop backing all Pakistani-based groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

But Musharraf says the pressure from India is making it harder to act.

"There are domestic issues and sensitivities that one has to be conscious about," he said over the weekend. By that, many observers say, Musharraf means to appear to take action against Kashmiri militants without looking like he's bending to Indian demands — something that could make him look weak to his people, not to mention his own military.

In fact, one Western diplomat told ABCNEWS today that there are steps that Musharraf had planned to take against the militants that he now can't — because of this very fear.

What Will Happen?

Other questions remain as well:

Will the ISI follow Musharraf's orders? At least one analyst has predicted that if Musharraf cracks down too hard on Kashmiri militants, he could face a coup.

Will the Pakistani public rise up in protest? Leaders of fundamentalist parties met today and announced a new round of protests of government policy.

And will the changes be enough for India? After calling Musharraf's initial moves "cosmetic," India has now adopted a softer tone. It still has not said, however, whether the Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will meet Musharraf at a regional summit in Nepal this week.

The crisis does seem to be dissipating, but it is by no means over. The troop buildup along the border continues unabated. As one Western diplomat said today, "the temperature has lowered, but we're not out of this mess yet."

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