Clinton makes time for visit to Pakistan

Coup-installed regime added in itinerary of South Asia trip this month

March 08, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Opting for cautious dialogue with Pakistan instead of a public snub, President Clinton will stop briefly in Islamabad this month during a trip through South Asia, administration officials said yesterday.

The decision comes after months of debate within the administration over whether to reward Pakistan's military-led government with a presidential visit. The current leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, overthrew the country's elected regime last fall and so far has refused to set a timetable for returning to democracy.

Opponents worry that the visit will signal U.S. approval of a government that not only imprisoned its elected president but also aggressively expanded its military capability and alarmed its neighbors. Pakistan exploded its first nuclear device in 1998, matching a nuclear test the same year by its chief enemy, India.

But Clinton administration officials argued yesterday that Pakistan's muscle flexing, and the precarious balance of power in South Asia, require continued U.S. engagement with Islamabad.

"The president will go to Pakistan because the Pakistani nation is a friend, not because he approves of or acquiesces in the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He wants to assure that we have the lines of communication that may be necessary and useful in a crisis."

Pakistan and India have skirmished for years over the mountainous Kashmir region on their borders. Last summer the Clinton administration pressured Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Pakistan-backed insurgents from Indian territory in Kashmir.

While Clinton wants the nations to settle their differences over Kahsmir, administration officials discouraged speculation that he will use his visit to try to broker a peace agreement on Kashmir.

"I do not see us taking on some kind of formal role as a mediator or negotiator between the two parties," said a senior State Department official.

Instead, Clinton plans to meet with Musharraf and deliver stern messages on restoring democracy, fighting terrorism and reversing Pakistan's nuclear escalation, officials said. The White House is especially concerned about radical Islamic groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan's neighbor. Clinton will ask Musharraf to crack down on any support the groups are getting from within Pakistan.

Musharraf has promised a return to democracy, but he won't say when. Washington wants a timetable for elections.

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said the country is "really pleased that the president has made up his mind" and expressed the hope "that he will also use this opportunity-- to promote a just and durable settlement of the Kashmir dispute."

Told that Clinton had ruled out direct mediation over Kashmir, Lodhi said: "That is his prerogative, and the prerogative of the United States. We have long urged international intercession in any form."

India's embassy in Washington declined to comment on Clinton's decision to stop in Islamabad. Clinton told Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee about the Pakistani stop yesterday morning.

"The reaction was, he understood this was the president's call to make," the State Department official said.

Clinton will stop in Pakistan for a day after spending five days in India for talks with Vajpayee. His trip will also include a short visit to Bangladesh, an impoverished Muslim state that was once part of Pakistan. It's the first-ever visit to Bangladesh by a U.S president. Richard Nixon was the last president to travel to Pakistan; Jimmy Carter, the last to visit India.

Clinton had planned to go to South Asia two years ago, but the visit was canceled after India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs.

Little has changed since then. Neither nation has signed a treaty banning nuclear tests; neither has entered into talks that would ban or reduce material for arms production; neither has shown signs of abandoning missile development.

"It's almost condoning what's happened in South Asia over the last two years," said Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's not a shining moment for U.S. nonproliferation policy."

But, he said Clinton made a correct decision in adding Pakistan to his trip.

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