U.S. gives Pakistan benefit of doubt

Hopes increase that military coup leader favors peace, rights

January 20, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the months since Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Pakistan's elected government, the United States has moved from expressions of "deep regret" at the coup to increasing tolerance and heightened hopes for the new ruler of the world's newest nuclear state.

Musharraf is coming to be seen as a relative moderate who could steer Pakistan away from Islamic extremism and who has taken promising steps toward economic reform.

"Coups are regrettable, but this one is less regrettable than others," said Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former State Department official. Given Musharraf's performance since the October coup and his predecessor's misrule, Cohen said, "probably the softest of all responses" was the correct U.S. reaction to the coup.

Nuanced U.S. messages to Pakistan illustrate the difficult task of balancing strategic interests with America's avowed role as champion of democracy.

But in recent weeks, most of the messages have been positive: Assistant Secretary of State Karl Indurfurth was scheduled to begin a visit to Pakistan today, marking the highest-level U.S. contact with Musharraf since he took control.

Last month the U.S. government accepted the credentials of the new Pakistani ambassador, Maleeha Lodhi, ending speculation that it would refuse to recognize Musharraf's rule.

Passing up another chance to show diplomatic displeasure, the White House is refusing to rule out a stop in Pakistan by President Clinton on a visit to the region.

The Clinton administration, which agreed in late November to reschedule Pakistani-U.S. debt, is signaling that it will support a new layer of financing for Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund.

"This issue is still being fought over in the State Department, but the position that seems to be coming out on top is the one that I think is correct: that we will deal with [Musharraf], that we are prepared to watch and wait for a while," said Teresita C. Schaffer, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "That may not be an ideologically satisfying response, but we live in a messy world."

Nobody in the Clinton administration says outright that the United States prefers Musharraf to his inept and authoritarian predecessor, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been jailed since the coup and yesterday was formally charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, terrorism, abetment and hijacking. Pakistan's possible role in sheltering hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane by Kashmiri separatists last month also has raised concerns.

But neither has Washington pressured Musharraf as its rhetoric suggested it might.

"We have made it clear at every meeting with General Musharraf that democracy is our principal concern, that we want to see a restoration of democracy at the earliest opportunity," said a senior administration official.

But, the official quickly added, "while we have expressed our disappointment, we also have made it clear that we intend to engage Pakistan on these issues. Pakistan is simply too important to walk away from."

Troubled predecessor

As a nuclear power on a subcontinent steeped in hatred, Pakistan is more than just another developing nation with a history of unstable government.

Sharif was elected in 1997 but never had a secure grip on power. He presided over a 50 percent drop in the value of the Pakistani rupee and a crackdown on the press and political opposition. He also faced accusations of corruption, including that he and his family owed tens of millions of dollars in taxes and defaulted loans and had skimmed money from the treasury.

Sharif directed the detonation of Pakistan's first nuclear explosion, in May 1998. The tests hurt Pakistan's already shaky relations with the West; developed nations cut off aid and decried the dangerous increase in tensions with next-door India, which had set off nuclear devices two weeks earlier.

The coup's roots seem to grow from Sharif's decision to withdraw Pakistani-backed insurgents from the Indian territory of Kashmir, a mountainous territory that is the subject of a long-running dispute.

The move, which came after heavy pressure from the Clinton administration, was unpopular in Musharraf's army.

Initial reaction to the coup was fear: A general who had recently participated in an aggressive border incursion was now in charge of a nuclear-equipped nation.

But Western analysts and U.S. diplomats quickly began tempering their worries about Musharraf with hope, and that hope has grown even though the general continues to be vague about when he will return Pakistan to democracy.

William Milam, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, has described Musharraf as "a moderate man who is acting out of patriotic motivations." Other developed nations are warming to Musharraf.

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