The 'battle' of Washington

Print edition : November 24, 2001

Vajpayee and Musharraf take their diplomatic war to the United States.

THE visits of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to the United States and their interactions with President George W. Bush will have to be seen on their own merits. For, any temptation to see these events through the prism of one or the other country will give a false sense of accomplishment.

Neither Vajpayee nor Musharraf can pretend that they did not have their own agendas in their meetings with Bush and senior members of his administration. Vajpayee's agenda might not have been Pakistan per se but in many ways it revolved around Islamabad's new-found status in the U.S. The status, which many believe will be a long-term affair, should in some ways be troubling Indian officials and diplomats. After all, only some three months ago the Musharraf government was taken to task by the U.S. on many issues, including terrorism and absence of democracy. But Pakistan is now seen as the "lynchpin" of American foreign policy in Central Asia and as a frontline member of the "coalition" against international terrorism.

Vajpayee and the members of his delegation were concerned that in all the hoopla about Musharraf signing on to the American agenda, the Bush administration should not forget the larger agenda of fighting terrorism in all its manifestations. Vajpayee made this apprehension known to Washington in a hard-hitting way while addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House International Relations Committee and the Members of the India Caucus.

What Vajpayee told the law-makers was not new. The bottom line of Vajpayee's position was that while India did not wish to "overload" the anti-terrorism agenda of the international community, it would "not tamely accept terrorist acts against us from across the borders". The members of the coalition against terrorism themselves cannot be indulging in terrorism. "Killing of innocent civilians and destruction of property can only be called terrorism, whatever the justification provided," Vajpayee said.

The Prime Minister did not wish to give the impression that he was "harping" on Pakistan, especially when the latter is riding high. Yet, at the same time, there was no mistake as to where the chips were falling when it came to issues such as terrorism and Afghanistan. "Unless and until we develop this integrated and inclusive approach to this scourge, no democratic, pluralist society can remain unthreatened by terrorism," he said.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with U.S. President George W. Bush at a media conference at the White House on November 9.-STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP

Senior Indian officials accompanying Vajpayee were convinced that there could be no two ways in interpreting the Bush-Vajpayee meeting of November 9. According to External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, the objectives of the meeting were "'fully and adequately achieved" and the summit meeting was a "total" success. Jaswant Singh brushed aside the notion that the U.S. and India were heading towards a military relationship. At least one media report had it that Washington approached New Delhi about it. The report, Jaswant Singh said, was "wonderful fiction".

But the fact of the matter was that the joint statement issued at the end of the working lunch at the delegation level did refer to bilateral cooperation in the realm of defence. Enhanced military cooperation, including arms purchases by India, will have to be seen in the context of the lifting of the sanctions. "The two leaders agreed that the recent lifting of economic, military and technology restrictions on India provides a further impetus to bilateral relations," the joint statement issued at the end of Vajpayee's visit said.

According to Jaswant Singh, India-U.S. military cooperation has three aspects. First, supplies that were held up before and after 1998 have to be cleared. The hope is that these will be cleared before the next meeting of the Defence Working Groups. Secondly, due consideration has to be given to additional requirements. And finally, the long-term requirements that will factor in both the developmental and strategic aspects will have to be taken care of.

What is striking is that both India and the U.S. will be expanding the areas of cooperation by including civilian nuclear safety, space, weather, communications and migration. Taken along with the progress achieved in defence matters, said Jaswant Singh during the post-summit press conference, this was "a beginning that we have never had". The two countries have further agreed to pursue the broad-based economic dialogue and intensify cooperation in the realms of trade, finance, commerce, energy and the environment.

The Bush administration believes that India should play a role in Afghanistan and some of the senior members of the administration will soon be visiting New Delhi. But the truth of the matter is that few people in the U.S. are sure of what role the U.S. itself will be playing in Afghanistan, except on the money front.

The only major disappointment of Vajpayee's visit was that a meeting with Musharraf did not materialise. It was obvious that such a meeting was very unlikely although there was a glimmer of a hope of a chance meeting. After arriving in Washington, Vajpayee and his advisors would have decided that meeting Musharraf in New York would be interpreted as India having succumbed to American pressure, which would be politically disadvantageous back home.

MUSHARRAF was quite prepared to play that game. In fact, he too had an agenda when he came down to New York to participate in the truncated General Assembly debate and for his big evening with the U.S. President at the Waldorf Astoria. Afghanistan was uppermost in Musharraf's mind and with it came the issue of terrorism, especially his perception of the whole problem. And then he had to firm up the package of economic assistance. Bush did oblige his guest and this was hardly surprising.

In many ways the Bush administration is being extra careful and sensitive to Pakistan because of the kind of situation Musharraf finds himself in, specially in the aftermath of his meeting with Bush. Both Bush and Musharraf made a public appeal to the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul. But no one seemed to have realised that it would be difficult for an impatient group of fighters to sit on the outskirts of the Afghan capital waiting for the establishment of a political framework.

From the beginning Musharraf has been insisting on representation for the Taliban in any post-Taliban set-up. The Bush administration was talking of establishing a broad-based government with representation for all Afghan groups, including some "moderate" elements within the Taliban. Now, after the Northern Alliance has entered Kabul and upped the ante, a search is on for Pashtuns who will play a role in the post-Taliban phase of governance.

When Musharraf met Bush in New York, no one knew that the Taliban's ouster was just around the corner. Musharraf's only demand was that the Northern Alliance should not have a dominant role. He is now in a tight spot.

While Vajpayee was hammering away at Islamabad, mostly indirectly, for cross-border terrorism, Musharraf took his case on Kashmir to the General Assembly and to the international media. While the Bush administration has brushed aside the notion of differentiating between various types of terrorism, Musharraf expressed the view that if disputes such as Palestine and Kashmir were allowed to fester, the international community would not be free of the problem of terrorism.

Bush stuck to Washington's standard line on Kashmir and reiterated that Washington would do what it could to bring New Delhi and Islamabad "to have a good, meaningful discussion on Kashmir". The joint statement issued at the end of a working dinner said that Bush and Musharraf agreed that India and Pakistan should resolve the Kashmir issue "through diplomacy and dialogue in mutually acceptable ways that take into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir".

If the American media lapped up every word uttered by Musharraf, it was not because of Kashmir. It had become quite obvious to almost everyone that while the Bush administration kept talking about the cohesiveness of the "coalition", there was hardly any partner in that coalition except Britain. And the rumblings from Pakistan were getting louder on questions such as the duration of the military campaign and the need for a let-up during Ramzan.

In whatever fashion Bush and Musharraf looked at the unfolding events in Afghanistan, it was clear that they fell short of the objectives. But this did not stop Bush from praising Pakistan as a "strong ally" and Musharraf as a "strong leader" and declaring that Pakistan's efforts against terrorism benefited the entire world and linked the country more closely with the world. Bush said that he wanted to "help build these linkages". The help came by way of an economic assistance package worth over $1 billion, which could be just a beginning. The Bush administration has already pledged emergency assistance of about $100 million and debt relief estimated at about $300 million. The remaining $600 million is likely to include more debt relief, outright assistance and more market access for Pakistani goods in the U.S. Bush said that he intended to work with international financial institutions and donor nations to assist Pakistan further as it tried to grapple with a difficult situation.

Pakistan, which was miffed that the U.S. had "dumped" its close ally in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, hopes that the U.S. is really looking for a long-term relationship this time. Musharraf said in New York: "Pakistan will hope for a very sustainable and long-standing futuristic relationship... a relationship which we always have had in the past."

India's real concern is not about the political proximity between the U.S. and Pakistan or the U.S.' economic package to Pakistan but about the enhanced defence cooperation between the two. This cooperation is expected to go much beyond the areas of military education and training. New Delhi's contention has been that providing weapons to Pakistan has heightened tensions in the subcontinent.

Musharraf would very much like to use the current situation in Afghanistan to Islamabad's advantage. It is too early to say how he would do this. But, at the very least, there is bound to be close interaction between Washington and Islamabad on how the political and security environment in Kabul should take shape.

While the Northern Alliance is perceived in Washington as a lesser evil compared to the Taliban, there are some people who do not see any difference between the two. Both groups are known for their brutal methods of governance. The Bush administration, Pakistan and many in the United Nations are particularly worried about the possibility of the Northern Alliance unleashing a pogrom if something is not done quickly to put in place an alternative political arrangement in Kabul.

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