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'Don't prop up Musharraf regime'

A top S Asia expert says Pak president sees Taliban as a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2006 13:33 IST

A noted South Asia expert wants the United States not to prop up Pakistan's military president Pervez Musharraf who in his view sees the Taliban as a pro-Pakistan counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Instead, the US should use its aid leverage to promote three goals, said Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in an article in the Los Angeles Times.

First, two exiled former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who have formed an electoral alliance to challenge Musharraf in the presidential election scheduled for next year, should be permitted to return and organize freely.

Second, If Musharraf wants to run for president again, he should step down as army chief and run as a civilian.

Finally, he should turn over power to a neutral caretaker government that would conduct the election.

This would be welcomed in Pakistan even by elements within the armed forces, said Harrison, noting that an open letter in July from a group of retired generals called for "the disengagement of the military from political power."

Musharraf is supposedly a key US ally in the "war on terror, but is he, in fact, more of a liability than an asset in combating Al-Qaeda and the increasingly menacing Taliban forces in Afghanistan?" he wondered.

Since 9/11, the Bush administration has been propping up Musharraf's military regime with $3.6 billion in economic aid from the US and a US-sponsored consortium, not to mention $900 million in military aid and the postponement of overdue debt repayments totalling $13.5 billion.

But now the administration is debating whether Musharraf has become too dependent on Islamic extremist political parties in Pakistan to further US interests, Harrison said.

There was, he said, mounting evidence that as an ally Musharraf has been an opportunist from the start who has continued to help the Taliban (just as he had done before 9/11) and who has gone after Al-Qaeda cells in Pakistan only to the extent necessary to fend off US and British pressure, he said.

According to Harrison, on Sep 19, 2001, Musharraf made a revealing TV address in Urdu, not noticed at the time by most Americans, in which he reassured Pakistanis who sympathized with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that his decision to line up with the US was a temporary expedient.

To Taliban sympathizers, Musharraf directed an explicit message, saying: "I have done everything for the ... Taliban when the whole world was against them. We are trying our best to come out of this critical situation without any damage to Afghanistan and the Taliban." He has kept his promise to the latter.

Taliban forces continue to have unrestricted access to Pakistani border towns as staging areas and sanctuaries. Pakistani soldiers look the other way when Taliban units cross the mountains at Bormoi.

Musharraf sees the Taliban as a pro-Pakistan counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan and wants to keep it strong in case Afghan President Hamid Karzai is overthrown and Afghanistan collapses into chaos, Harrison said.

As a sop to Washington and London, he ordered raids on two small Taliban encampments in July, and he occasionally rounds up key Al-Qaeda figures - but in many cases only after the FBI and CIA have confronted Pakistani police with communications intercepts pinpointing their hide-outs.

Even if Musharraf wanted to remove Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces from Pakistan, his ability to do so is limited by the political pact that he made with a five-party Islamic alliance in 2004 to win state elections in the two key border provinces, Harrison said.

As a result, Al-Qaeda and Taliban activity is openly supported by local officials there, and Pakistani groups allied with Al-Qaeda are thriving, notably Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Under Musharraf, the army has seized much more power than past military regimes, installing military officers in hundreds of government posts previously held by civil servants, Harrison said.

Army-sponsored conglomerates control multibillion-dollar enterprises and will not be easily dislodged, he said citing a Pakistani editor's comment, "Most countries have an army, but in Pakistan, the army has a country."