Romancing the U.S.

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's visit to the United States did not quite go according to his script.

IF the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, came looking for the moon during his three-day visit to the United States in February, he must certainly have left feeling quite disappointed. But if the General was basically expecting a "feel good" visit that would have an implication back home, the Bush administration more than obliged him to achieve the purpose.

What struck many in the political town that is Washington was the transformation of Pakistan and General Musharraf - and all in a span of about five months. At one time Pakistan under Musharraf was one of the most reviled in the White House, and officials and law-makers in the State Department and on Capitol Hill were only too keen to advise Pakistan on how to go about restoring democracy, come to grips with terrorism, and so on.

In fact, just one year ago, President George W. Bush did not seem to know who the leader of Pakistan was. During the course of the 2000 presidential election campaign, Bush flunked a foreign policy quiz when asked about the name of the President of Pakistan. "The new Pakistani General, he's just been elected - not elected, this guy took over office," Bush remarked.

President General Pervez Musharraf with President George Bush at the White House in Washington.-LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

What an elevation in status "the General from Pakistan" has had since then - from "this guy" to "I'm proud to call him friend" by the end of his first formal meeting with Bush and his advisers at the White House. Apart from the White House, senior Cabinet officials were also rushing to offer praise of Musharraf for his role in the war against terror; law-makers tripped over one another to heap praise on the U.S.' new-found "ally".

The atmospherics, in many ways, was nothing short of the bizarre. Suddenly this city, where memories are obviously short, was reaching out to a person who was at one time condemned, and in the process even let him off the hook for some truly unbelievable remarks.

In the course of his speech and interaction at the National Press Club, Musharraf argued that he did not seize power, rather it was handed over to him when he landed in the country following a mid-air drama; and that Pakistanis were seeing the real "essence" of democracy under his rule. Musharraf was certainly not aspiring to be the chairman of the Humour Club, but unknowingly was giving it a shot.

Musharraf had other things to say too, which raised the eyebrows of many in the administration and outside. Before embarking on his official visit, the General in an interview had argued that India might have had a hand in the abduction of the reporter of The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Pearl; and that Jaish-e-Mohammad leaders Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar might actually be Indian agents. The implication was that Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba were terrorist outfits nurtured by India to kill Indians.

IN Washington, the Pakistani ruler spoke of "reports" of another nuclear test by India but it was brushed aside by senior officials of the Bush administration. And after weeks of hanging on to the theory that Osama bin Laden may have died, Musharraf changed his tune and said that bin Laden may be in Afghanistan, dead or alive.

Musharraf may have come to Washington with many things in mind, but from the outset he gave the impression that Pakistan and his foreign policy were all about a single-point agenda - Kashmir. At a meeting organised by the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the Ronald Reagan International Centre, Musharraf played up Kashmir on known lines - that it was the core issue and that mediation was needed if South Asia were to get out of the mess ever.

"I am committed to a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people. All other differences existing between Pakistan and India should also be settled through peaceful means. We believe the United States can facilitate such a solution and help South Asia turn a new leaf," Musharraf said at the White House.

But he did not get very far with the Bush administration. From the President downward, the response was pretty much on expected lines - that while the U.S. would like to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between India and Pakistan, it was basically left to the two nations to hammer out a solution.

"The only way this issue is going to be solved is if the Pakistani government and the Indian government sit down and have a serious, meaningful dialogue to resolve this issue... the best thing our government can do is to encourage (the two sides) to come to the table and start to have meaningful, real dialogue," Bush said by way of a response.

If Musharraf was looking for American mediation over Kashmir as something "to take home to", that must have indeed been tricky, for the Bush administration at no time during the General's visit gave any indication of softening its stance on the issue. No wonder then that there is a perception in Pakistan that Musharraf returned home empty-handed.

Politically, however, the Bush administration was determined to make the best out of Musharraf's visit. For all practical purposes, Pakistan is about the only solid ally the U.S. has in that part of the Islamic world in its war against terrorism and has been playing host - for a fee, of course - to American personnel and materiel.

At every turn the Republican administration made the point that the General was a genuine and sincere ally, even if the bottomline was the need to watch the ground reality carefully. And to all in Pakistan who have a nagging suspicion that the country will be dumped after the present campaign is over, the reassuring words came from none other than the U.S. President himself.

"I want to remind people from Pakistan that I didn't mention many world leaders in my State of the Union. But I mentioned President Musharraf for a reason. And hopefully that's an indication of my sincerity in developing a strong and meaningful relationship," Bush remarked, making the point that the U.S. was not looking for a "short-term dance" with Pakistan.

It is the long-term strategic relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan that should be of interest, as also concern, countries such as India. For long, the argument has been that Pakistan uses sophisticated weapons acquired from the U.S. against India. But this argument is unlikely to stop any longer-term plans the two sides may have.

Musharraf is very interested in getting the weapons supply pipeline flowing, but what hardware Washington will allow to be provided at this point of time remains to be seen. After all, the Bush administration, after making noises about India or Pakistan upping the ante at a time of high tension, cannot "add" to the existing environment. And high-flowing rhetoric would have been the order of the day even if Musharraf received only an "intent" to look at his request for F-16 fighter aircraft.

The Pakistan President did not come to the U.S. thinking that he will be escorted by a few squadrons of F-16s on his way back to Islamabad. But he will very much want this sophisticated aircraft - the stopped consignment now comprising old stocks sitting in hangars in some desert in Arizona. What exactly the Bush administration has told the General is a matter of speculation. "Not now," appears to be one; "down the road", is another.

For now Pakistan will have to be content with the promise of enhanced defence cooperation that will include a defence consultative group, release of spares that had been bottled up since the time of the sanctions following its 1998 nuclear tests; equipment for the purpose of maintaining a vigil at the borders with Afghanistan; and some $300 millions by way of reimbursement for its role in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from October 2001 to January 2002.

With a debt to the U.S. of $3 billion, Pakistan had been hoping that the Bush administration may be inclined to write off a third of it. But considering that there is a process to be gone through on Capitol Hill, this was not easy even if the Republican government wished it to be so. But what Pakistan is actually looking for is the U.S.' "help" to meet its larger debts at the international level.

The much-anticipated break Pakistan got from the textile trade, either by way of increased quotas or a reduction in tariffs, did not come about. But this had more to do with U.S. domestic politics and the textile lobby than any disappointment with Islamabad on matters pertaining to the war on terrorism.

Much of what transpired between Musharraf and his hosts will of course never be made public. Looking from the outside, it appeared that Musharraf may have left somewhat giddy even if with little of anything else. But no one can blame the General for not trying especially on the substantive aspects of his single-issue agenda in foreign policy.

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