The new military-led government in Pakistan is likely to pursue foreign policies that are acceptable and even pleasantly surprising to the Clinton administration, according to a variety of Pakistani and foreign observers. The exception could be that Pakistan maintains its close and strategic relationship with the radical Muslim Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan.
For now at least, the new government is unlikely to pursue the kind of aggressive policies toward India, such as the recent 10-week border clash initiated by Pakistan in May, that have alarmed and irritated the West, the sources said.
The tense security climate between the longtime rivals, both of which have nuclear weapons, may actually improve under the government now headed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the 56-year-old career officer who seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday.
The new regime will seek to avoid trouble abroad, in part because its overriding priorities will be domestic, according to military officials and specialists here. It especially wants to reform corrupt political institutions and revive the near-bankrupt economy.
Experts in both India and Pakistan said they expect the Musharraf government to seek a stable and improved relationship with India. Musharraf was army chief when Pakistan sent fighters into the Kargil mountains of the disputed Kashmir border territory last summer. But the experts said his new responsibilities at home, and his country's desperate need for Western financial aid, are likely to keep Pakistan from meddling abroad.
"He is not going to engage in any new misadventure, because the economy won't permit it and the world won't accept it," said Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Strategic and Defense Analysis in New Delhi. "In this situation, we must engage Pakistan and keep the doors of dialogue open, although we must also keep our eyes open and our powder dry."
Several American and European diplomats said they had a sense his government might support Western concerns in the subcontinent, ranging from terrorism by Islamic fundamentalist groups to the threat of nuclear war. "There are opportunities that were not there before," said one diplomat.
Pakistan's new military leaders have yet to make any public statements about their domestic or foreign policy plans. Musharraf canceled a promised television address Saturday that was expected to outline an interim government. His spokesman did not say when the speech would be rescheduled.
Some foreign observers have expressed fears that a military government, with its finger on the nuclear button and no civilian checks on its power, might seize the opportunity to cause havoc, especially while it is still smarting from being forced by Sharif to retreat from Kashmir in July.
"We cannot forget that this army chief was responsible for the Kargil adventure. He has shown a propensity to take risks, and now this same individual has seized power and is in possession of nuclear weapons," said P. R. Chari, director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "It is very worrisome."
But other analysts here and abroad pointed out that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has always been in military hands, while sources in the Pakstani military said the new regime has a vested interest in reducing regional tensions, in part because it needs its best people and resources to begin overhauling Pakistan's failed political and economic systems.
"The general has no doubt that an actual war has to be won at home," said one senior military officer.
One longtime demand of the Clinton administration--that Pakistan and India sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons--has virtually been rendered moot by the Senate's rejection of the treaty this week. Foreign observers here said Washington's ability to pressure either country has been severely reduced, and Musharraf is not likely to raise the issue.
Still, senior Pakistani military officers made it clear that as long as India continues to develop its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan will be obliged to do the same.
It is less clear what approach Musharraf intends to take toward the future of Kashmir, the Himalayan region that India and Pakistan each claim. For years Pakistan's military has been training and bankrolling guerrilla forces that operate in Indian Kashmir, and their terrorist attacks have increased dramatically in the past several months.
Freeing Kashmir from Indian control has long been the principal battle cry of the Pakistani military, and sources said Musharraf cannot afford to appear soft on the issue. But diplomats and other civilians who have met with him said the general is eager to solve the issue.
"The military knows the value of peace, but Kashmir is close to the army's heart," said Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani general and former intelligence chief. "The Lahore agreement created anxiety in the army, and it was hurt and humiliated by Kargil."
The one area in which Musharraf's foreign policies may quickly clash with the wishes of Washington is Afghan relations. The country is ruled by the Taliban fundamentalist Islamic regime, and Pakistan has maintained close ties with it.
The United States, which believes Taliban officials are harboring Islamic terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, has pressed Pakistan to help bring them to heel, so far with little success. Some diplomats said Musharraf has privately expressed concern about bin Laden, and is especially worried about the spread of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan.
The general is widely described as a religious moderate who views religious extremism as a threat to domestic and regional stability. But large segments of the Pakistani military are conservative Muslims, and they view the relationship with Afghanistan as sacrosanct.
"We were the first to recognize the Taliban, and we thought we could influence them. We didn't realize what a vicious cauldron we would become a party to, or what this would do to the world's perception of us," said one former Pakistani army chief. "Perhaps the new government will realize there is an alternative to this self-defeating policy."
Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.