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Pakistan: Musharraf's Visit Underscores Dramatic Changes In Ties With U.S.

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf arrives in the U.S. today as part of a week-long trip to the West to stress his government's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Islamabad, the trip is also a measure of how much U.S.-Pakistani ties have improved in recent weeks as Washington continues to pursue its military operations in Afghanistan.

Islamabad, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is due to arrive in New York today on the last leg of a whirlwind trip abroad. The tour -- which began on 7 November -- has already taken him to Iran, Turkey, France, and Britain.

In New York, he is due to attend the UN General Assembly session tomorrow, where he will be one of the keynote speakers. He is also due to hold a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the UN sessions. Musharraf is scheduled to leave New York on 12 November to return to Islamabad.

The Pakistani president is stressing several messages as he travels, the first being that Pakistan is committed to staying in the U.S.-led coalition against terror.

He said at a joint press conference in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday that Islamabad will remain part of the coalition until "the attainment of the strategic objectives that we have set for ourselves."

But Musharraf also called for the campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and the network of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden to be "short and targeted," and he repeated his hope that the bombing will come to an end before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November. U.S. President Bush has said there will be no pause in the campaign.

Another of Musharraf's messages is that his government is a stable partner in the coalition and that he has no fears that pro-Taliban Islamic militant groups at home will disrupt his policies. He told reporters after meeting French leaders -- including President Jacques Chirac -- on 7 November that "the very fact that I am...leaving my country for seven days shows that all these misperceptions are misplaced."

At home, his government has slapped tight security around anti-U.S. protests since the U.S.-led bombing began on 7 October, with the result that early violent demonstrations now have diminished into largely peaceful protests. The largest protest so far -- three weeks ago in Karachi -- brought out just 20,000 people in that city of 12 million. That gave Musharraf the confidence to tell reporters recently that he had thought that the "opposition to [his pro-U.S. policy] would be much more than what it turned out to be."

Musharraf is providing the U.S. with access to its airspace, the use of three air bases for search-and-rescue operations, and Pakistani intelligence on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

The final message Musharraf is stressing is Pakistan's support for a broad-based new government in Afghanistan that would represent all Afghan groups. He is believed to have discussed that position when he met for talks with Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref during a brief stopover in Tehran, also on 7 November.

Iran and Pakistan previously have been rivals over Afghanistan, with Tehran backing the opposition Northern Alliance and Islamabad supporting the Taliban. But Pakistan's reversal of its policy as it has joined the U.S. war on terror has opened new opportunities for regional cooperation. Iran, which opposes the U.S. bombing, is calling for any solutions in Afghanistan to be within the UN framework.

Political analysts in Pakistan say Musharraf is displaying such strong public support for the U.S.-led coalition because the government sees no other choice in the current crisis.

Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, says the government did a straightforward cost-gain calculation to arrive at its decision to abandon the Taliban and embrace the U.S.-led campaign against terror. Iqbal Cheema says: "Islamabad didn't have much choice to begin with. Now, you either support the coalition against international terrorism, or you don't support it. If you don't support it -- you already are isolated -- you will be further isolated. And you probably will be subjected to further punitive sanctions and other things. Your economy is weak and, given all these factors, you have to make your own cost-gain calculus."

Now, with Pakistan's leader due to meet the U.S. president tomorrow, many in Islamabad see the talks as a measure of how dramatically that cost-gain calculation has changed U.S.-Pakistani relations since 11 September.

Analysts note that, just two months ago, Musharraf was still largely an international pariah for overthrowing Pakistan's elected government in a bloodless coup in October 1999. Last year, Musharraf was ignored by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton when he attended the UN General Assembly, while the prime minister of Pakistan's arch-rival India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was hosted in Washington.

But since 11 September, U.S. officials have repeatedly underlined the importance Washington places on Pakistan's cooperation in the war against terrorism. The upcoming Bush-Musharraf meeting has been preceded by visits to Islamabad by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as by Britain's Tony Blair.

In courting Pakistan's support, the U.S. has lifted economic sanctions on both Pakistan and India, imposed after both countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998. That has helped clear the way for Pakistan to seek much-needed relief from its foreign debt burden, which totals some $37 billion. Servicing that debt currently consumes about 60 percent of the Pakistani government's revenue.

The past weeks have brought a study string of announcements of new loan or aid packages to Pakistan from Western governments and international lending institutions. The U.S. alone has already provided $100 million in economic assistance and rescheduled $396 million in debt. Reuters reported yesterday that the Bush administration also is readying a trade-promotion package ranging from $400 million to $700 million to help finance U.S. exports of goods and services to Pakistan.

Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters in Islamabad recently that his ministry is engaged in talks with the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, and France covering economic assistance, export credit, resumption of insurance credit, access to new markets, and debt relief.

And, separately, the World Bank in October approved a $300-million loan for Pakistan -- a package speeded up in the wake of the 11 September attacks. Bank officials have said they are ready to follow up that loan with others, and that lending to Pakistan in the current 2002 fiscal year could total some $600 million.

Amid the flurry of new activity, the recently arrived U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, summed up the current state of affairs in remarks she made to the press earlier in November.

Chamberlain -- in an interview with the U.S. television network CBS -- said: "The policies of Musharraf have changed 180 [degrees] since 11 September."

She could just as well have added that Washington's policies toward Musharraf have done the same.