Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When a top U.S. figure such as Secretary of State Colin Powell visits a foreign capital, journalists traveling with him customarily are briefed on the planned agenda.
So when Powell emerged yesterday from a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri in Islamabad, reporters expected to hear that the two diplomats had discussed the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; talked about reports that Pakistan's top nuclear scientist had sold atomic secrets to Libya, North Korea, and Iran, and considered how to further improve the growing rapprochement between Pakistan and India.
Indeed, much of what Powell said after the meeting fit the expected script.
"He's already being accused of being the lapdog of the West and of selling out Pakistan's national interests, particularly in Kashmir."
"On the security front, [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush and the American people appreciate the sacrifices that Pakistan already has made to keep us all safer from terrorism. We share your sadness over the loss in battle over the past few days of some of your brave frontier soldiers and we share your pride in the way that they pursued their mission to defend their nation," Powell said.
But the U.S. secretary of state had one thing to say that did not fit the script: "I advised the foreign minister this morning that we will also be making a notification to our Congress that will designate Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally for purposes of our future military-to-military relations."
The United States so far has named a limited number of nations to this category of military friends. These are Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines.
The strongest allies of the United States are its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Members of NATO are pledged to go to the defense of any other member that comes under foreign attack.
A major non-NATO ally does not enjoy that status. But the United States gives members of this club preferential treatment in the purchase of excess U.S. defense materials. They can stockpile U.S. military hardware, and participate in cooperative defense research and development.
In Washington yesterday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. declaration shows that the United States wants a long-term relationship with Pakistan.
"I think it's a recognition of our close and continuing cooperation with Pakistan in the global war on terrorism. This is a fairly exclusive club. I think it demonstrates a commitment to a positive and long-term relationship with Pakistan," Ereli said.
The new status marks a significant advance in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan after the South Asian nation conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The sanctions made it difficult for Pakistan to purchase weapons on the international market.
U.S. leaders lifted the sanctions after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, when Pakistan aided the United States in its war on terror. Under President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan dropped its support of the Taliban militia, allowed U.S. troops to use its air bases during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and provided intelligence support.
It has also arrested hundreds of Al-Qaeda fugitives, and is currently engaged in cooperative military efforts with U.S.-led troops along the Afghan-Pakistani border in an attempt to flush out Al-Qaeda militants and Taliban remnants.
Powell obviously intended the offer of a new, closer military alliance as a further reward for Pakistan's cooperation over the past 2 and 1/2 years.
But at least one analyst doubts that the U.S. gesture will help the Musharraf government as much as leaders in Washington would wish.
Alex Standish is the editor of "Jane's Intelligence Digest." He says severe domestic problems loom over Musharraf's government, which took power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
"Well, I think Musharraf's problems are actually mounting and I think they are far more serious than either the U.S. or indeed Musharraf's own government would like to admit. The most dangerous problem at the moment lies in a rise in disaffection, particularly in the junior and middle ranks of the armed forces," Standish said.
Standish says that impending resistance at home to Musharraf's policies is unlikely to be overcome by foreign -- that is, Western -- support, however warm.
"The principal problem he's got is that if he loses the support of the intelligence services -- the ISA -- or his military commanders, he is a man really without much support other than his foreign allies. And I think it's going to take far more than that to keep the lid on the potential disaster that is brewing in Pakistan," Standish said.
In fact, Standish says, strengthening friendship with the United States is likely to arouse Musharraf's opposition without doing much to please his supporters. Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts in December 2003, and his standing in Pakistan is clearly on the decline.
"He's already being accused of being the lapdog of the West and of selling out Pakistan's national interests, particularly in Kashmir. So I think that this really is not going to help Musharraf particularly at home, because I don't think it's going to make any difference in the way he is viewed by those who support him, but it may well increase the level of animosity toward him and his administration by those who are deeply opposed to the alliance he has made with the West and with the U.S. in particular," Standish said.
Powell's trip to Islamabad marked the end of a South Asia tour that took him earlier this week to India and Afghanistan. He arrived today in Iraq for an unannounced visit.