February 21, 2001


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K P Fabian

What did Musharraf gain?

The Pakistani daily Dawn, in its editorial of February 16, said the economic package Pervez Musharraf got from President George W Bush "falls significantly short of expectations". Musharraf himself stated at the end of his three-day visit that he was "to a great extent satisfied". The Indian media, partly reflecting the government's views, has expressed satisfaction that the general did not get endorsement for his position on "mediation" on Kashmir and was denied F-16 jets and spare parts.

An assessment of the visit should start with what the general wanted and planned to accomplish. In brief, he wanted to maximise the opportunities afforded to him by September 11. From that point of view he has done reasonably well.

When Musharraf staged his coup in October 1999, relations between Pakistan and the US were at an all-time low. Since 1990, Pakistan had been under sanctions as the US president stopped issuing the annual certification of Islamabad's nuclear virginity required under the Pressler Act. The nuclear tests and the military coup brought more sanctions on Pakistan. Thanks to September 11, as the BBC put it, Musharraf was transformed from a tinpot dictator to a pivotal player on the world stage.

While planning for the visit, Musharraf must have had a number of aims in his mind. He wanted to project Pakistan under his leadership as a 'liberal, tolerant, progressive, dynamic and strong Islamic state' and he succeeded fairly well in doing that in his interactions with Bush and in the speech given at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington.

Bush praised him at the joint press conference as "a leader of great courage and vision", referred to Pakistan as a "key partner" and, as though responding to Pakistan's fears of being abandoned again, insisted that it was not a "short-term dance". Musharraf's own sense of achievement and satisfaction was clearly expressed at his press conference at the Pakistan embassy when he said that his country, which was once treated as a "pariah", now enjoyed a "place of respect in the international community".

At the same time Musharraf would not have failed to recognise the significance of the message when Bush told him at the joint press conference that Washington intended to remain "committed as long as our goals remain the same". The words show that it certainly was not very easy for the crusader for democracy to embrace a military dictator. At the same time, when Musharraf claimed that he was more democratic than any government that ever existed in Pakistan, he was not talking to an audience lacking in sympathy.

Just as Musharraf made use of the invitation to the Agra summit to declare himself president, he announced in Washington that he was likely to remain president for another five years. The people of Pakistan with memories of corrupt "democratic" leaders do not seem to be in a hurry to get rid of him.

Musharraf was, of course, keen to re-establish the pre-1990 military relationship and would have been delighted if his request for F-16s and spares had been agreed to. But it is important to realise that he did achieve partial success: the defence consultative group, revived after talks with Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will discuss "military to military relations" and enough hints were given that defence sales could start later. It is likely that the supplies will start after the tension in the subcontinent comes down.

Musharraf made utmost use of the opportunities accorded to him to paint India in a bad light. Even before leaving Pakistan, he had told the media that perhaps India was involved in the kidnapping of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He was not taken seriously by anyone. He told the audience at the Woodrow Wilson Centre that India might be planning a nuclear test. His body language was rather unconvincing and the US administration promptly pointed out that there was no evidence of any such test -- and Musharraf lost some credibility.

On Kashmir, Musharraf would have been happier with a more forthright formulation on US mediation. Mindful of India's sensitivities, the US stuck to "facilitation" of talks between the two countries. There was no substantial gain, nor was any seriously expected, but Musharraf gave a clever spin when he said: "Frontally, there is bilateralism, but behind the scenes there is facilitation. That is what is happening and we are thankful for the help provided by Secretary of State in defusing tension."

While there is no question of India being dragged to mediation, it will be wise for India to note that Washington is eager to be asked, and that it might not prove to be an honest broker.

The financial package was much less than expected by Pakistan. Dawn has pointed out that Pakistan owes $2.8 billion to the US and the $1 billion debt relief talked about might not mean an outright write-off. Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has already made it clear that the legislative approval for debt relief is contingent on free and fair elections and easing of tensions with India. Pakistan was given additional access to the tune of $142 million to the US textile market, but here again there is much disappointment in that, unlike the Europeans, the US did not reduce duty and there is doubt whether Pakistan will be able to make use of the concession.

Out of a total of $100 million announced earlier, some 30-odd million was specifically allotted to education, labour welfare and training of election commissioners. Dawn correctly pointed out that given the US endorsement, Islamabad can now expect more from the IMF and the World Bank, whose heads Musharraf met in Washington. The offer of a loan of up to $150 million by the US Private Overseas Corporation might induce more private investment from the US and elsewhere, even though Pakistan still has a reputation as an unsafe place for Westerners.

The question uppermost in the minds of many in the subcontinent is the return of sanity to the region and whether the US can put any pressure on Musharraf to return to India at least the Indian nationals on the list of 20 handed over by New Delhi on December 31.

Going by Musharraf's statement upon his return to Pakistan that he had no intention of doing any such thing, it will not be incorrect to deduce that no pressure was exerted on him in that direction while he was in Washington. Since Washington is keen to have bases in Pakistan, it was perhaps unrealistic to have expected it to exert any such pressure. If that is the case, no progress was made in moving towards reducing tension in the subcontinent where a million armed men are kept in a state of alert.

However, there is no reason to believe that a war is round the corner. The question is how and when the military de-escalation will commence. It should distress both Indians and Pakistanis that Musharraf has decided to keep in Pakistan wanted criminals such as Dawood Ibrahim, believed to be the evil mind behind the Mumbai blasts of 1993 killing as many as 300 innocent human beings. If America failed to put pressure on Musharraf on this, it becomes difficult to take seriously the repeated declarations of its president who has pledged to fight terrorism in all its manifestations.

K P Fabian served as India's ambassador to Italy.

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