We must get it right in Pakistan

Pakistani society has never been more divided than today, not just economically, but religiously and

It hasn't been the happiest of birthdays for Pakistan. Sixty years after the trauma of Partition, which created the country, it is going through one of the most uncertain and perilous times in its history.

Pakistan's beleaguered president, General Pervez Musharraf, must feel he has little to celebrate. With almost daily suicide bombings since the army's catastrophic siege last month of the Red Mosque and its madrasas in the heart of the capital, Islamabad, Musharraf found himself having to use his national independence address not to hail the country's achievements but to urge Pakistanis to unite against terrorism. He also spoke of the importance of engaging in the forthcoming elections, the first since his coup in 1999.

Pakistan is pivotal in the so-called war on terror, but "terror" is a word the president has almost never used to describe what has been happening inside Pakistan. Apart from references to "foreigners" infiltrating Pakistan to fight with al-Qaeda, "terrorism" has been, for Musharraf, a problem for Afghanistan, the Middle East, Indian-controlled Kashmir and Britons of Pakistani descent. That he used the word to describe a national problem is a measure of how much has changed since the storming of the Red Mosque.

It is also a measure of the general's desperation. He is a man battling for political survival, unable to hand power to civilians but at the same time unable to exert authority on an increasingly anarchic country that has nuclear weapons.

Power and, more importantly, credibility are ebbing away from Musharraf at such a rate that many Pakistanis believe he looks more and more like Hamid Karzai, president of neighbouring Afghanistan, a man Musharraf despised and looked down on. For him, Karzai was a puppet of the west - a leader whom Washington had imposed on Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taliban in 2001. Worse, Karzai stayed in power because of the US, with American bodyguards rather than Afghan ones. Even though Musharraf put Pakistan fully behind the war on terror, he saw himself as different from Karzai. He had real support and power within Pakistan. Now that has changed and Pakistanis see him as a man, like Karzai, ever more reliant on support from Washington and London.

Pakistani society has never been more divided than today, not just economically, but religiously and socially. The divisions between the liberal middle classes and the poor are about the role and place of religion, the madrasa system and Pakistan's relationship with the west which, ordinary Pakistanis believe, gives them nothing. Aid from the US and UK has been overwhelmingly military-based, with barely any regard to social and developmental needs. For London and Washington, Musharraf was Pakistan, and as long as he was on their side, so was the rest of the country. That delusion is now unravelling.

Britain and the UK are realising that Pakistan is a divided land, with full-blown insurgency wars under way across the north, and a parallel Islamist political system that is campaigning for the establishment of sharia rule and an open alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Comments by Gordon Brown and David Mili band about the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the war on terror have been hugely encouraging. But Brown's government and the Bush administration still share dangerous misconceptions about the country. They have pandered to military rule in Pakistan for too long. They supported Musharraf blindly and were uninterested in what was happening inside his country. Continuing such a policy will ensure that millions of liberal Pakistanis come to hate the west - in addition to the millions of conservative and militant Islamists who already do so.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time