Pakistani President Purges Pro-Taliban Military Leaders

President Pervez Musharraf suddenly purged his inner circle of pro-Taliban commanders on Sunday night, in a power shift that cemented his government’s dramatic break with its former Afghan allies.

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Musharraf forced the reassignment or resignation of Pakistan’s intelligence chief, two top generals and a number of other military commanders – most of whom were regarded as pro-Taliban or Islamist. They were replaced by officers generally regarded to be less supportive of the Taliban and conservative Islamic groups.

Musharraf made his moves at about the same time that U.S. and British bombs were falling across Afghanistan, and hours before the Pakistani president offered his clear support for the U.S. anti-terrorism effort at his first press conference since Sept. 11.

Pakistani observers saw the command changes and his press conference as a sign Musharraf had decided once and for all to ditch his government’s troubled association with the Taliban, and to side more openly with the U.S. effort to overthrow them.

Musharraf told the press conference his government would keep diplomatic relations open with Kabul, saying someone had to keep a channel open to them. He also suggested he was acting partly at the behest of the international aid community in keeping relations open.

The purge led with the removal of Lt. Gen. Mahmood as head of Pakistan’s General Interservices Intelligence Service (ISI), which has worked closely with the Taliban over the years. In recent weeks, Pakistani officials have privately been quite critical of the ISI’s inability to exert any influence over the Taliban’s steadfast refusal to hand over Usama bin Laden and his associates.

Gen. Mahmood was replaced by Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq, who is not known to be a Taliban supporter.

Musharraf also moved aside Lt. Gen. Mohammed Aziz Khan, a corps commander, by naming him to the mostly ceremonial post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen Khan was regarded by some Pakistanis as pro-Islamist.

Khan was the military commander who formally installed Musharraf as head of government in the October 1999 coup that deposed then-Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif.

While a promotion on paper, the move amounts to “kicking him upstairs,” in the words of one Pakistani military official who described the position as having “about as much real power as the queen of England.”

In another key move, Musharraf also appointed Lt. Gen. Mohammed Yousuf as vice chief of staff of the army, passing over Lt. Gen. Muzaffar Usmani for the post.

Usmani is seen by some as a hardliner who supported stronger relations with the Taliban. Pakistani officials said Usmani is expected to resign, as Pakistani military tradition dictates that a commander quit when he is passed over in favor of a junior officer.

Musharraf said in the press conference the moves had nothing to do with the current crisis. “Some changes had to take place … but the changes in the military have no relationship whatsoever with events taking place in Afghanistan,” he insisted.

Pakistani officials, however, made little effort to convince reporters that was actually the case. They privately said Musharraf’s statement was intended to keep up his support among the ranks of key military officials who might feel slighted by the actions.

During the press conference, Musharraf also offered a strong defense of his decision to support the U.S. anti-terrorism effort.

“Pakistan took the decision to be part of the world community” in the fight against terrorism, he said, offering the United States use of Pakistani airspace, intelligence and logistical support.

Over the weekend, Musharraf extended his term as the army chief for an indefinite period. The move was widely expected.

The president now holds the key positions of chief executive and head of the National Security Council, positions he is also expected to keep through the current crisis.