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Pakistan: Coup Leader Could Be Moderate On Taliban

The recent coup in Pakistan raised concerns in the West about stability and democracy. But it is also raising some hopes of changes in Pakistani foreign policy. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the signs that Islamabad's new regime might scale back support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

Prague, 20 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's new military government has yet to give a clear picture of whether it will modify Islamabad's long-standing policy of support for the Taliban, Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist rulers.

Early this week, coup leader General Pervez Musharraf raised Washington's hopes that he might take a tougher line on Afghanistan's ruling militia when he called in a speech for, in his words, a truly representative government in Kabul.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam, immediately welcomed Musharraf's statement as a good sign. As Milam told reporters, if there were a representative government in Kabul, Afghanistan would not harbor terrorists. Washington accuses the Taliban of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the man indicted for bombing two US embassies in East Africa last year.

But at the same time that Musharraf was calling on the Taliban to share power in Afghanistan -- and thus to become more moderate -- the general also was receiving the praises of Pakistan's own hardline religious parties. And most of those parties strongly support both the Taliban and Islamic militancy in general.

Pakistan's right-wing religious parties hail Musharraf for deposing prime minister Nawaz Sharif, in part because Sharif infuriated them this summer by ordering the retreat of Islamic militants battling Indian troops in Kashmir. Even the Sharif government's own record of strongly supporting the Taliban was not enough to protect it from the religious parties' anger.

Analysts say that Musharraf is now in the difficult position of seeking to define a position on Islamic militancy that is acceptable to both Western capitals and Pakistan's religious parties.

Alex Lennon, a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. says the choice is critical. Musharraf needs Western loans to support Pakistan's economy. But at the same time, Lennon says, Musharraf cannot appear too pro-Western for fear of alienating the religious parties and further weakening Pakistan's already fragile internal stability.

"He or any leader in Pakistan is going to face a severe conflict within the country, and that is that there are a lot of moderate forces both within Pakistan and outside -- primarily the West and some of the conditions on the International Monetary Fund loans -- and on the other side he has a lot of nationalist, fundamentalist religious parties within Pakistan that particularly react negatively to pressure from the outside."

But Lennon predicts that if Musharraf is forced to make a choice, the general will back moderation over militancy. He says that the military is extremely active historically in Pakistani politics, but the one thing it consistently does is back forces for moderation and economic stability.

"The military has always been a very strong force for stability in Pakistan and so any military going to side [with] the forces of moderation while still acknowledging and being deferential to the more fundamentalist forces."

The prospect that Musharraf might favor moderate forces intent on better economic relations with the West already seems to worry the Taliban. The militia's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, voiced disquiet about the coup in Pakistan shortly after it occurred last week.

A statement issued by the office of the Taliban supreme leader said, to quote, "We can firmly say that this change [of government] is a reaction to some moves by foreign powers against the...independence...of Pakistan." Currently, Pakistan is one of only three countries which recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Afghanistan's opposition has cautiously welcomed the change of government in Islamabad. General Said Hussain Anwari of the opposition United Front said he hoped a new administration would be set up in Pakistan that was free of Muslim fundamentalists. As he put it: the coup might not be good for Pakistanis and democracy, but it could be good for Afghans.

Lennon predicts that in the months ahead, Musharraf or any civilian government he backs will be under mounting pressure from Washington to cut back support for the Taliban.

So far, Washington's reaction to Muharraf's seizure of power has been cautious and mostly preoccupied with how soon he plans to return the country to democratic rule. But the analyst says many U.S. policy makers are increasingly convinced the coup could bring a positive change of course in Pakistan and in more moderate policies toward Afghanistan and India. Lennon says:

"From a Western standpoint, he is basically doing about everything right that he possibly could. The reaction to what is basically a military coup is fairly favorable given his rhetoric and his policy actions in withdrawing some of the troops from the border with India, standing down some forces, making declarations that they want to turn over the government to a civilian government. These are all the right things for him to do."

Lennon continues:

"What you are seeing now [in Washington] is the beginning of a period of policy re-evaluation that in the short run is going to focus on how they make the transition back to a civilian form of government and in the longer run will re-visit the whole range of policy concerns with Pakistan, whether it is nuclear tests, whether it is drug trafficking, whether it is the Taliban, or whether it is terrorism."

The analyst says that the extent to which a new Pakistani government responds to those policy concerns will help determine how much Western aid it receives. And that, in turn, could exercise a moderating influence on Pakistan's future relations with the Taliban.