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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Just why did Cheney meet Musharraf?

March 02, 2007

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Is United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice no longer in the loop on Washington's Pakistan policy?

At any rate, she was unaware of the 'leak' to The New York Times that American President George W Bush has finally decided to send 'an unusually tough message' to Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf that unless the latter played ball with grit and sincerity in curbing Taliban activities inside Pakistani territory, Washington would be constrained to cut American aid.

Rice was justified in ignoring the leaks appearing in The New York Times. After all, the daily carried so many leaks in the run up to the invasion of Iraq that the venerable newspaper finally apologiSed.

Now, with another war looming ahead, leaks abound in Washington. The problem is, some in our part of the world may take them seriously.

Rice doesn't, though.

In an interview with the ABC television channel on Sunday, she paid her most handsome tribute ever to Musharraf. She spared no effort to let it be known that Washington regards him as a gallant soldier.

'This has been a stalwart fighter, Pakistan's Musharraf, in this fight,' Rice said. 'Let's remember that Al Qaeda tried to kill him a couple of times (actually, according to Musharraf, five times) and the Pakistani leadership knows that Al Qaeda would like nothing better than to destabiliSe Pakistan and to use Pakistan as a base rather than Afghanistan for its operations.'

A day later, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeated Rice's sentiment. Lauding Musharraf's new border strategy in the lawless, devilishly obscure Pakistani tribal agencies, McCormack said, 'Let me reiterate and underline that President Musharraf is a good ally in the war on terror, Pakistan is a strong fighter in the war on terror´┐Ż Steps have been taken, cooperation has improved.'

He wasn't to be drawn into The New York Times leak.

So, what was US Vice-President Dick Cheney's surprise halt in Islamabad on Monday, February 26, all about?

Without doubt, there was an Afghan angle to Cheney's mission.

The threshold of US vulnerability in Afghanistan is nowhere near reaching. There is bipartisan support in Washington for the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. The military commanders see the Taliban as a 'defensive insurgency' and the war as eminently 'winnable.'

The main challenge is that it shouldn't get reduced to an Anglo-Saxon war, with major North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies from 'Old Europe' looking in.

Here, the problem is of geopolitics. There are serious misgivings in Europe that the secretive Anglo-American agenda is to trick the Euro-Atlantic community in a 'new Cold War' with Russia.

China too has begun expressing disquiet lately about the geopolitics of the Afghan war -- the US global strategy of 'taking control of the Eurasian continent and proceeding to take the helm of the entire globe' by establishing military presence on an 'unstable arc of instability from the Caucasus, Central and South Asia down to the Korean peninsula,' to quote the People's Daily.

Pakistan's importance as one of the most valued pieces of real estates in the US geo-strategy is apparent.

Especially to Musharraf. That gives him seamless manoeuvring space.

Continued US presence in Afghanistan is vital for Pakistan's national interests. Ideally, the war must roll on.

The Pakistani economy does well only when American capital flows become available.

As former Pakistani finance minister and World Bank Vice-President Shahid Javed Burki wrote recently, the spectre haunting the Pakistani economy is that out of sheer war fatigue, American troops may pack their bags and take leave of the Hindu Kush and head home.

Somehow, the Indian strategic community has a mental bloc assessing how the 'Taliban card' works for Musharraf.

Then, what explains Cheney's visit to Islamabad?

Cheney doesn't stir out of the US easily. Not, certainly, as a courier transmitting an odd message over the Taliban spring offensive.

There is only one item on Cheney's calendar -- 'oil and war.' He is not a presidential hopeful in next year's American election. He has about 18 months to retire, and is at the pinnacle of an enviable career in public life.

Seldom has a US president allowed himself to be so entirely led by his vice-president.

Cheney's finest hour has come -- for sorting out Iran, the 'last frontier' in the energy war, before he retires.

It is this sense of urgency that brought him to Pakistan after visiting two of America's staunchest remaining allies -- Australia and Japan.

Cheney's visit to Pakistan signifies an extraordinary moment in the diplomatic history of the Indian subcontinent. The Indian strategic community must get it straight. The consequences are going to be immense.

Washington expects General Musharraf to stand up and be counted if a confrontation ensues with Iran.

Musharraf is already allowing US intelligence to stage covert operations against Iran from Pakistan's Baluchistan province. He is doing all he can in rallying the Sunni Muslim world.

Last weekend's conclave of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference foreign ministers in Islamabad was exclusively of Sunni Muslim countries. Iran was excluded.

Musharraf may have a greater role to play if the security of Saudi Arabia gets threatened in any armed conflagration in the Persian Gulf region, or if Iran gets seriously destabilised.

Most important, Washington needs Islamabad to ensure that the Afghan war remains on track in its present state of animation, while it moves against Iran.

Tehran has considerable levers of influence inside Afghanistan. Senlis Council, the British think tank, last week assessed that Iran might have begun assisting the Afghan resistance.

The point is the Taliban is a generic name.

Indeed, who is a Talib? Anyone could be -- when civilisations have begun clashing. He needn't be necessarily Wahhabi or anti-Shia.

From the US geo-strategic point of view, the Afghan war has managed to get an unwilling NATO to come and slouch in a region that is the soft underbelly of Russia and China (and India).

Washington would like NATO to remain there ad infinitum. If tomorrow NATO becomes part of the US missile defence system, its occupation of the Afghan high plateau is a huge advantage -- overlooking four of the world's eight nuclear powers.

The congruence of interests between the Bush administration and the Musharraf regime has no parallel in the chronicle of US-Pakistan relations.

To belittle the General, to chastise him like an errant school boy, to ridicule him as presiding over a banana republic, to send him sulking to a corner -- that was the last thing Cheney had in mind.

Guest Column