Skip to comments.Pakistan: Payback time
Posted on 07/20/2004 7:25:32 PM PDT by Dr. Marten
Pakistan: Payback time
By Seema Sirohi
WASHINGTON - US President George W Bush and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf are locked in an embrace as partners in the "war on terrorism", and each is becoming crucial to the survival of the other.
With Bush's approval ratings dipping ahead of November's presidential elections, Musharraf is being forced to deliver on two poll-lifting promises - Pakistani troops for Iraq and a "high-value al-Qaeda target". He is under pressure from Bush administration heavyweights who have been streaming into Islamabad at frequent intervals bearing gifts and lists of demands.
With the appointment of Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Ashraf Jehangir, as the new United Nations special envoy to Iraq, the Bush administration has delivered yet another sweet pill to coax Musharraf along the path to sending troops to Iraq. The appointment at once raised Pakistan's profile, helped in its rehabilitation as a country slowly working with the international community, and put in place a person who will be more open to US concerns, wishes and exigencies.
The selection of Qazi capped a week of suspense in UN corridors as diplomats waited in anticipation to discover who would get the world's most visible and dangerous diplomatic job. Well-informed sources said Secretary General Kofi Annan was close to naming Salman Haider, a former foreign secretary of India, whom he personally knew and respected. He even called Haider to Doha this month for a meeting. But once Annan began his consultations with "major countries", the US State Department weighed in favor of Qazi. US officials said they had names of the contenders three weeks in advance and they "knew" Qazi since he was serving in Washington. Haider's independent streak and criticism of US Iraq policy didn't help his case with the Americans.
UN observers expressed surprise at Qazi's nomination, saying it sent the wrong signal to Iraq and the rest of international community. The UN envoy to Iraq has the delicate task of establishing democratic rule, bridging the Shi'ite-Sunni divide, curbing terrorism and overseeing reconstruction. Pakistan's experience in all areas is minimal, and some say even negative. The country is ruled by an army general, as it has for most of its independent life since 1947, it is regularly racked by Shi'ite-Sunni violence and it has been a sanctuary for terrorists for the past decade, pointed out a UN analyst. Many diplomats criticized the heavy US hand in the UN process, even as Washington slowly tries to distance itself from Iraqi politics.
But Qazi as the new special envoy will help provide cover to Musharraf if he decides once again to go against public opinion in Pakistan and sends troops to Iraq. Bush appears determined to cash his chips with Pakistan and call Musharraf on his promise made in June last year after their meeting at Camp David. The US president had announced a US$3 billion military and economic aid package for Pakistan, and Musharraf for his part had agreed "in principle" to send troops to Iraq under a UN mandate and if a sovereign Iraqi government made the request.
Last Friday, the United States wrote off $495.3 million in debt that Islamabad owed Washington, after earlier debt writeoffs totaling $1.5 billion. Bush has asked for $3 billion from Congress over the next five years for Pakistan, of which at least $1 billion will go toward improving macroeconomic stability and investment in human capital, and private-sector development in Pakistan. Another $500 million will fund ongoing programs of the US Agency for International Development to improve education, health and good governance. The remaining $1.5 billion is earmarked for military support.
Now both of Pakistan's conditions for sending troops to Iraq have been met - the UN Security Council last month passed a resolution recognizing the interim Iraqi government hand-picked by the Americans as "sovereign" and the Pakistani government has already received a letter from Prime Minister Ayad Allawi requesting troops.
Although Musharraf had kept Allawi's letter a secret, the fact was revealed by visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in an interview to Geo TV in Pakistan last week. While denying he had himself asked for Pakistani troops, Armitage said: "I simply explained to the government our view of what's going on, and our views of the situation there. Prime Minister Allawi of Iraq has requested some assistance in a letter to the government of Pakistan, so these are decisions that the government of Pakistan is going to have to make."
Pakistan was one of the strongest supporters of the UN resolution, and its UN envoy, Munir Akram, last month welcomed it as "the most significant step since the first Gulf War" of 1991. The sequence of events unfolding in New York, Washington and Islamabad has the ring of a well-written script designed to boost Bush's position, despite a war going desperately wrong. Every commission of inquiry and assessment from the special September 11 panel to the US Senate's own report has declared Bush's reasons for the Iraq war false, untenable or simply exaggerated. A fresh induction of foreign troops - Pakistan being the last possible supplier of a significant number of soldiers - can help smear a modicum of success on a floundering venture.
Bush's eagerness to get new foreign troops to Iraq is understandable in light of the "coalition of the willing" fast becoming the coalition of the fleeing. The Philippines, Thailand, Poland and New Zealand have decided either to leave or drastically reduce their presence after a rash of hostage-taking dramas enacted on television by insurgents. The new Indian government has ruled out sending troops to Iraq, but indicated its willingness to be "helpful". Armitage, during a one-day stop in New Delhi last week, discussed training for Iraqi police, doctors, nurses and diplomats by India, along the lines of what New Delhi is doing in Afghanistan.
But it is Musharraf who is key as Bush mounts his campaign for his re-election. A report in the latest issue of The New Republic magazine says the Bush administration has significantly increased its pressure on Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who are all high-value targets (HVTs). Intelligence reports say these most wanted men are hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Pressure is also coming from the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has publicly criticized Pakistan's efforts in finding the terrorists as inadequate.
The report went on to add that White House officials privately told the Pakistanis to deliver at least one of the men soon, and announce the news at the end of July in time for the Democratic National Convention, apparently to take the media spotlight away from the anointing of John Kerry as the official Democratic nominee for president of the United States. The magazine quoted a source in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as saying the Pakistanis "have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs before [the] election is [an] absolute must". The source, who works under ISI's director, Lieutenant-General Ehsan ul-Haq, told The New Republic that Bush administration officials had told their Pakistani counterparts they had a date in mind for announcing this achievement: "The last 10 days of July is a deadline that has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [Haq's] meetings in Washington."
The White House has denied the report, which created a stir in Washington as evidence that the Bush administration was treating the "war on terrorism" as a political ploy and waging it in a manner to suit the electoral calendar. Pakistani diplomats say there is a long history of their country being asked to bail out the US, from the days of Henry Kissinger's famed secret forays to China to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to now, when the success of the current president's chief election plank - his "war on terrorism" - depends directly on whether Musharraf can deliver something in time.
Asia Times Online has reported that a large-scale Pakistani military operation could begin any time soon in the tribal areas to catch foreign elements. Two earlier operations this year failed to land any names of note.
Recent polls show that US voters are turning away from Bush as someone they trust to handle the war. A majority of Americans now think the war against Iraq has made them less safe. Bush's overall job-approval rating declined to 47%, the lowest since he took office, with 50% saying they disapprove of the way in which he is doing his job. Just four in 10 Americans gave the president positive marks for his handling of Iraq, the lowest since he launched the war in March 2003. A Washington Post-ABC poll said 52% of Americans believe the Iraq war was not worth fighting and 76% believed it had damaged the standing of the US in the world.
Clearly, every success, every loss, every spin will count between now and November 2 when Bush faces the voters, and any help he can receive from his "most trusted ally" in Pakistan will be gratefully received.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based correspondent.
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