Bush’s Pakistan trip: Prickly prelude

Gen Musharraf was not exactly looking forward to a visit by his buddy

The months preceding US President Bush’s visit to Islamabad were clouded by three issues that may have left Gen Musharraf wondering whether the costs of hosting Bush outweighed the potential benefits.

Firstly, the American missile strike at Bajaur and the Bush administration’s unapologetic stance in its aftermath signaled an increasing impatience with Musharraf in the hunt for top al-Qaeda leaders and more importantly, demonstrated its willingness to act in its interests regardless of Musharraf’s protestations of cooperation. For his part, Afghan President Karzai kept up the pressure on Pakistan keeping the issue of cross-border terrorism targeted at Afghanistan very much in the public spotlight. The situation was further complicated anyway by the fact that Pakistan has lost control of several tribal areas. Musharraf did attempt to head off some pressure from Bush on this front by launching an operation in North Waziristan just before Bush arrived. The strategy of producing ‘results’ before high-profile meetings with Americans has been long exposed and would not have done much to allay American concerns. It has, however, ensured that Pakistan will have a lot of cleaning up to do after the Bush party is over.

Secondly, the Islamist political parties have been channeling the public anger against the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed to protest against Musharraf and the United States. Musharraf himself would not have relished the prospect of having to demonstrate his closeness with the United States at this particular time. Unfortunately for Musharraf, Bush’s visit had been planned before the cartoon riots broke out, it was linked with a trip to India where some serious deals were in the making and Pakistan just could not afford to propose a postponement. There would have been another sort of hell to pay for if Bush had skipped Pakistan on this round.

Thirdly, the United States had made it sufficiently clear that the nuclear deal that it had offered India would not be available to Pakistan. Despite receiving billions of dollars in development and military aid since September 11, and despite being anointed as America’s major non-NATO ally the nuclear deal with stood out — both in the minds of the public and of the establishment — as Washington’s tilt towards India, at Pakistan’s expense. Although Pakistani leaders indicated that they would bring up the ‘Kashmir’ issue in discussions with Bush, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the United States would not force the pace of the issue beyond the role it is playing in the current ‘peace process’.

In addition to these matters, there were the usual worries about democracy, concerns over nuclear proliferation — now with respect to Iran and unpromising prospects for greater access to the American market for Pakistani exporters. Pakistan and its president had little to look forward to, and many things to be wary of in a Bush trip to Islamabad. President Bush too had little reason to make this trip, apart from the belief that not stopping by in Islamabad would have been worse.

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