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Walking the tightrope

For many nations of Asia, especially those with large Muslim populations, the war against terrorism leaves them between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The dilemma is best illustrated in Pakistan and Indonesia where fundamentalist groups are large and powerful enough to cause plenty of trouble.

As is the case among many Middle Eastern nations, the governments of Pakistan and Indonesia cannot afford to appear careless of Muslim lives.

While the bulk of the populations in both countries are more or less "middle of the road," they can be easily influenced by the religious clerics if unnecessary casualties begin to mount.

Both countries have long histories as fertile grounds for the growth of independent religious movements.

In Pakistan, the madrasah religious schools cater to the poor offering them free education and support. It was here that Taliban supremo Mullah Omar received his training.

Indonesians have a tradition of Muslim messianic movements centered around a prophesied righteous leader known as Ratu Adil.

Leaders in these countries as in many other Muslim nations tend to give a good deal of leeway to religious leaders and their movements.

In many cases, leaders are forced to say one thing on the domestic front and something totally different when dealing with other nations.

When Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri was promising to help the United States fight international terrorism, some groups back home were "sweeping" for Americans.

Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf's initial refusal to allow U.S. forces to use his country's bases was calculated not to give extremists any extra ammunition. Even allowing the use of Pakistani airspace sparked riots and he was forced to detain a number of religious clerics. It's a very difficult situation for him.

If the United States should expand its military activities to other Muslim countries besides Afghanistan, the situation could get even worse. The Arab League, which has endorsed the current campaign, has said that the U.S. and its allies should not expand military operations to Arab countries.

Given the fact that Iraq, Sudan and Somalia, three countries often cited for such operations are Arab League members, it's not a very promising situation.

The road is going to be long with many bumps along the way.