Katherine Butler: How much longer can General Musharraf last?

In Pakistan's volatile political theatre, it is possible that this is the beginning of the end
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From the air, the surprising thing about Kashmir's Jhelum Valley is how much is still standing after last October's earthquake. It is an illusion, of course. When the army helicopter swoops low between the treacherous peaks, you realise the roofs of the small farms and houses you thought were intact are actually flat on the ground; the walls that used to hold them up have crumbled to rubble.

It could be a metaphor for Pakistan's leadership. A key ally of Washington in the "war on terror", Pakistan appears to be headed by a benign moderniser who stands as a bulwark against religious extremism in this strategically vital region. In the sprawling capital, Islamabad, the institutions of state sit in white marble palaces, the wheels of government appear to function, boys play cricket in every available green space. The Western-educated elite returned in big numbers after 9/11 and house prices are booming.

But beneath the veneer, the reality is a fragile, sectarianised, radicalised and failing state. And at its head is a military dictator on American life-support, who is now in danger of being toppled in a rising swell of anti-Western protest.

As a Westerner in Pakistan in the week when protests against the Danish cartoons exploded in violence for the first time, it was difficult in any conversation to avoid an angry discourse on blasphemy. And that was at least useful in understanding the complexity surrounding the place of religion in Pakistani national identity. At an American-style (without the beer) Grill in Islamabad, an ex-foreign minister, a man who in his day negotiated with Henry Kissinger, boiled with anger that freedom of expression was being invoked to justify the cartoons. "We are talking about the holiest of holy Prophets!"

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is not just, as one Western diplomat put it, "the bearded nutters" for whom secularism, indeed the notion of separation of church and state, is a kind of moral dysfunction of Western society. The current Foreign Minister sat back in his armchair and lectured visiting journalists for 15 minutes about the theological differences between the Prophet in Islam and the Trinity in Christianity.

But while the street protests may initially have been about the honour of the Prophet, or rather the perception of a conspired assault on Muslims, Pakistan's daily protests and strikes have now widened. They are a rallying point for the diverse political enemies of General Musharraf and his alliance with the West.

Tear gassing, rioting and strikes have spread across the country, and with George Bush due in Islamabad on 3 March, Musharraf has little choice but to use the army to quell the protests, while rounding up the hardline mullahs and clerics who are vowing to unseat him. But using force is a drastic measure that could well backfire on him.

So are we seeing the beginning of the end for General Musharraf? In Pakistan's volatile and violent political theatre it is certainly possible. His internal enemies are numerous. Twice they have tried to assassinate him. The "hidden hands" as Musharraf calls them, include Islamists who think he is a traitor to Islamic orthodoxy and Taliban remnants who operate freely in the wild frontier provinces bordering Afghanistan. Add to the list the various al-Qa'ida affiliates who have made Pakistan their base and are fighting - and probably beating - Musharraf's troops in the mountainous tribal areas; wings of the military and intelligence services who believe he has gone too far, not to mention violent separatists waging an insurgency in Baluchistan.

On its own, the cartoon issue may just have been containable. But anti-Musharraf sentiment was already running high, since a failed CIA airstrike on al-Qa'ida killed a dozen civilians in a border village in January.

Days after the dramatic if bloodless coup that brought him to power in 1999, the general posed for the cameras in a Hello!-style shoot on the lawns of his Rawalpindi home. Cradling his Pekinese dogs Dot and Buddy, and making the right noises about democracy, the army chief cut a reassuring figure for the West. Six years on, Musharraf's relationship with America in the "war on terror" is his lifeline (billions of dollars in aid have flowed from it) and the root of all his problems. He has suited America's interests. But caught on the tightrope of meeting their demands while trying not to play into the hands of the religious right, he is politically paralysed and has taken Pakistan nowhere.

He has come up with a few imaginative proposals for ending the stand-off with India over Kashmir, but neither side grasped the opportunity offered by the ill-wind of the earthquake.

Economically, growth figures are impressive. But most of this is a function of foreign aid. The lives of most Pakistanis beyond the gated enclaves of the rich remain mired in appalling poverty, insecurity and ill health.

Ultimately Musharraf has put his own desire to cling to power ahead of any genuine willingness to confront religious extremists or build space for a secular opposition. Until this week he has perpetuated the tradition of the army and the Islamists working hand in glove.

Musharraf would like the West to think he is all that stands between us and nuclear-armed anarchy. Thanks to the cartoons, we may find out sooner rather than later, whether he is right.