Doublespeak on terror

Print edition : April 23, 2004
in Washington

EVER since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been clear signals of how the United States and the Republican administration of President George W. Bush would deal with Pakistan. As far as Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf is concerned, getting on the right side of the Bush administration has apparently been the only smart way out of the mess.

The Bush administration was fully aware of Pakistan's credentials on the terrorism front all along and knew that it had little option but to go along with Musharraf for reasons of geography, strategy and so on. And all those law-makers on Capitol Hill who not too long ago were screaming themselves hoarse about the fate and future of democracy in Pakistan are suddenly finding themselves in a spot on the issue of terrorism.

Pakistan's recent elevation in status to a Major Non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Ally (MNNA) might have come as a surprise to political establishments in South Asia. Some are even disturbed by the U.S.' waiver of the existing sanctions, imposed purportedly in the larger interests of democracy.

In his memorandum to Secretary of State Colin Powell on March 24, President Bush said that his determination to waive the relevant provisions of foreign operations, export financing and Related Programmes Appropriations Act of 2004 that had been held against Pakistan was based on the fact that it "would facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan and is important to the United States' efforts to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism". If Musharraf plays his cards well, much more is to come his way by way of goodies.

But all this was expected, especially in the context of the manner in which the Republican administration went out of its way to humour the political and military establishment in Islamabad. Not too long ago, when Colin Powell was asked if there was a connection between allowing American troops to operate on the Pakistan-Afganistan border and the decision to give MNNA status to Pakistan, he said:

"There is no connection, no relationship between these two. MNNA status gives Pakistan access to more material than they might otherwise have access to. And its a status we extend to those countries that we have good relations with and we want to have better relations with."

One way of seeing the growing Washington-Islamabad nexus is that it is purely a short-term one that is confined to terrorism and the urgency to catch as many operatives of Al Qaeda as possible, including its leader Osama bin Laden. All this is in turn related to the Bush re-election campaign, which has placed a premium on terrorism.

The concern in India and elsewhere on the decisions vis-a-vis Pakistan is justified given the history of the subcontinent over the past 50 years. As an MNNA country, Pakistan can draw upon many things, and only the naive are going to see the vast opportunities being used judiciously or stretched over an extended period of time. One of the advantages is the shorter time-frame involved in processing requests in the case of an MNNA.

Although Pakistan is now the recipient of a five-year economic-military package worth $3 billion and has received at least $150 million in helicopters, surveillance aircraft, armoured personnel carriers and transport aircraft since 9/11 as part of security assistance, as far as India is concerned the real problem would be, for example, the likelihood of Islamabad using Al Qaeda as a pretext to squeeze as much as it can from Washington.

For now senior administration officials say that giving Islamabad F-16s is out of the question, but India should not be too surprised to find this arsenal in the Pakistani inventory in the near future. The Musharraf regime has been pressing for a lot of equipment from Washington, including Predators, or aerial surveillance craft. And India is supposed to believe that all these are for use only on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

With the help of its new-found status, Pakistan can, among other things, have access to certain types of weapons systems, use American funding to lease certain types of equipment, and is eligible for loans to procure military supplies for research and development. Washington is not blissfully ignorant of how and where its weaponry was used in the past. Pakistan can also buy depleted uranium ammunition, accumulate stockpiles of American-owned weapons on its soil and receive military training on better financial terms.

What has puzzled many people is that the Bush administration has accorded Pakistan the new status - which Washington says many others in the Asia-Pacific and West Asia have - without taking into account Islamabad's proliferation record, including the A.Q. Khan expose.

Senior officials of the Bush administration maintain that investigations are on in Pakistan but have few alternatives to the explanations offered by the Musharraf regime. The bottom line seems to be that since Khan and his network have been supposedly torn apart, there is little danger ahead. But the Bush administration is yet to come fully to terms with the implications of Pakistan's clandestine and dubious relationship on the nuclear and missile fronts with Iran, Libya and North Korea.

The suddenness with which the MNNA status came about has raised at least one major doubt - whether Washington has now formally given up on getting to the bottom of the Khan controversy. For all its talk of a war on terrorism, the Bush administration has had a scandalous track record on the issue of Pakistani proliferation and has consistently shied away from challenging or confronting its new-found ally.

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