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Pakistan at Crossroads

General Musharraf of Pakistan is facing serious domestic and foreign policy challenges following the overthrow of the Taleban regime.
By Shiraz Paracha

Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf returned from the US this week to face serious challenges.

A dangerous power vacuum is emerging in Afghanistan after the fall of the Kabul regime and many in Pakistan are angry that the US has not rewarded them for supporting its goals in the region.

Major Pashtun parties have been supporting Musharraf's decision to back the US war on terrorism. They now seek a dominant role for Pashtuns in post-Taleban Afghanistan.

Barrister Aftikhar Ahmed, a political commentator from Peshawar, thinks the situation could take an ugly turn if Pashtuns are not included in a future Kabul administration. " This could create real problems in Pakistan, " he said. "Neither Russia nor America could establish a legitimate government by keeping 'credible' Pashtuns (ie those loyal to Pakistan) out of it."

Efforts are now under way to form a Southern Alliance comprising Pashtun tribes, to counter the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. The formation of such a coalition, however, is a monumental task as Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group is divided.

Reports of uprisings against the Taleban in Pashtun areas is significant, but in the absence of a unified Pashtun platform the community could soon begin to fight among themselves and plunge Afghanistan into further chaos.

The supporters of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, and certain former mujahedin along

with nationalist Pashtuns, could play important role in bringing Pashtuns together. But the Talebanisation of some factions within the community could pose a threat to its unity and thus the peace process in Afghanistan.

Another threat to stability is the fact that the Northern Alliance is no longer prepared to be a junior partner in a proposed Zahir Shah-led, broad-based administration. A combination of President Putin's decision to back them last month and their recent military successes, has prompted them to demand a greater say in the running of the country.

They are likely to reject any "moderate" Taleban involvement in any future Kabul government, especially since Putin has already made it plain that as far as he is concerned the former rulers are finished. Sources say Moscow would rather Afghanistan was partitioned than see the Taleban given some role in a new administration.

A Northern Alliance entity would provide the Kremlin with another friendly buffer state on the southern borders of the former Soviet Union. It could also bring some economic benefits for Russia as northern Afghanistan is full of natural resources, in particular natural gas, which Moscow once exploited.

Since the events of September 11, Musharraf has been arguing that it is in Pakistan's best interests to support the US war against terrorism. All political parties, except the religious groups, supported his policy.

In return, Pakistanis expected the US to write off at least half of Pakistan's nearly 40 billion US dollar foreign debt and deliver the F16 fighter jets, which Islamabad bought 10 years ago. The planes have yet to be delivered and Washington has not returned the money for the aircraft.

But to the disappointment of many in Pakistan neither of these issues were resolved during Musharraf's recent visit to the US.

The fall of Pakistan's proxy regime in Afghanistan and discontent at home over what is seen as Washington's betrayal of Islamabad could take its toll on Musharraf unless he acts to consolidate his authority.

To do this, he has to redefine his country's role in Afghanistan, because crises there will always impact on Pakistan, and seek to create political and economic stability at home, which will require the establishment of a representative government.

It has been reported that the military regime wanted a compromise with Pakistan's main opposition party, the Peoples Party of former premier Benazir Bhutto. Under such a deal Bhutto, who was convicted in a corruption case, would not be arrested upon her return from self-imposed exile.

Some reports also suggest that Musharraf is thinking of holding elections scheduled for October 2002 as early as next March.

Already there are signs that some of those who've been strongly critical of his policies in the past are now prepared to work with him. Mulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, the head of Jamiat Ulma-I-Pakistan, JUP - a major component of the Afghan-Pakistan Defence Council, APDC, an umbrella organisation of religious groups, which has been organising anti-war protests in Pakistan - said that while he opposed the bombing of Afghanistan he would not oppose Musharraf's government.

But support for Musharraf could easily turn into opposition. Anti-US sentiments and bitterness against the West may grow in Pakistan especially among Pashtuns if they feel excluded from the political process in Afghanistan.

Shiraz Paracha is South and Central Asia editor for a London-based news service. Between 1987-1998 he reported from Peshawar on Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

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