Pakistan: A crucial moment in the history of a troubled nation

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The Independent Online

Pakistan is facing its worst political turmoil since President Pervez Musharraf vaulted to power in a bloodless coup in 1999. The fallout from the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan has introduced al-Qa'ida and pro-Taliban elements into the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border. A long-simmering nationalist insurgency is fighting the Pakistan army in the vast and resource-rich province of Baluchistan. And General Musharraf's own popularity has plunged over recent months as calls for a restoration of democracy continue to grow.

To add to his discomfort, there is sustained pressure from Washington to clamp down harder on Islamist militants. Last month, President George Bush signalled his willingness to strike targets inside Pakistan, while declining to say that he would seek Islamabad's consent. "With real actionable intelligence," he said, "we will get the job done".

After the 11 September attacks in 2001, the country resumed its role as a frontline state, having played a crucial role during the first Afghanistan war. Bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, China and India, it has long been considered of strategic importance. But the Pakistan government has grown increasingly frustrated with criticism that it is not doing enough to curb the threat of terror.

"Those who say Pakistan is not doing enough do not appreciate the ground realities," says the Information minister, Tariq Azim. "Today we have 87,000 soldiers in Waziristan. We are paying a heavy price, not only in terms of lives lost but politically too. The Bush government is not popular around the Muslim world and by joining its fight against terror we make ourselves vulnerable."

Until recently, the violence in the tribal belt had little impact on urban Pakistan. Partly helped by the $10bn in aid from the US, Pakistan has been enjoying impressive economic growth – now at 6 per cent.

But critics argue that this new wealth has done little to diminish the grinding poverty of the majority. According to a recent poll, published by Herald magazine, 75 per cent of urban Pakistanis believe that the Musharraf government's policies have "increased poverty". The same poll illuminated further divisions within Pakistani society. Pakistanis are divided over whether it should be a "modern democracy" or a "religious state", and a majority believe most politicians are corrupt, military spending should be cut, privatisation should cease, the peace process with India should continue, Kashmir should be an independent state, and that Mr Musharraf has not proved to be a "better ruler" than former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Musharraf's slide in popularity was triggered by his abortive sacking of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was reinstated after months of street protests – supported by opposition parties including those of Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto. Since his reinstatement, Mr Chaudhry has harried the government at every opportunity. He was the judge who ruled that Mr Sharif, who was ousted by General Musharraf, can return, which he plans to do on 10 September.

Ms Bhutto is expected to return later this year also. Washington has been encouraging Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf to shed their differences and firm up a power-sharing arrangement. But Ms Bhutto has lost significant support since news of her talks with the military ruler became public. "She has lost a lot of ground to Nawaz Sharif," says M Ziauddin, a senior Dawn journalist. "But she's capable of regaining that distance if she moves quickly. If she keeps on talking to Musharraf without results, it will be a near-impossible situation for her."