Beyond The Islamabad Stop–Over

Beyond The Islamabad Stop–Over

Arabinda Acharya

The decision by the US President, Bill Clinton, to add Pakistan to his South Asian itinerary later this month provides a new twist to its policy dilemmas in dealing with the region. It appears that Clinton’s advisors finally ‘gave in’ to the dictact of real-politik by placing US strategic interests over and above the political concern that such a visit would give legitimacy to the military regime in Pakistan. They hope that a visit would produce concessions from Islamabad which would advance US security and foreign policy interests. These interests include, among other things, containment of international terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and the restoration of democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan. Supporters of the Clinton visit to Pakistan, including the regime in Islamabad, had argued that, by skipping Islamabad, he would be playing into the hands of the anti-democratic forces in Pakistan. Maintaining communication with the junta in Pakistan is better than isolating it. The Clinton visit is to make a contribution to an improvement of conditions in the region besides being a confirmation of the fact that the US and Pakistan have had “a long and close friendship”. American experts are of the opinion that the visit would ensure a de-escalation of tension in the region and keep the Pakistani Generals engaged “one way or the other” with the international community. The US needs to deal with terrorism and since the locus of international terrorism has shifted to the region, Washington needed to stay engaged with Pakistan. Moving away from Islamabad would have deprived Washington of its ability to deal with the generals and strengthened the hands of the militant fundamentalists within Pakistan. A snub of this nature might also have added to the region’s instability, worsening the threat of outright war and a possible nuclear exchange between Islamabad and Delhi. That is why gestures of accommodation that Islamabad handed out including General Pervez Musharraf’s possible visit to Afghanistan to plead for restraint in the regime’s support for terrorism, would have to be rewarded. (Pakistan dispatched a Cabinet Minister Omar Asghar Khan, to Washington to assure the administration of steps being taken to close down terrorist training camps and to “neutralise US worries about training of terrorist groups in Pakistan’s neighborhood”.) The efforts of US-based lobbyists for India to prevent a Clinton stopover in Pakistan drew support from some US law-makers as well as cross sections of the media which wanted Clinton to deliver a powerful snub to its military dictatorship. The Indian opposition to the stopover was expected, although a critic might argue that it betrayed immaturity and a wrong understanding of the role that US has assumed for itself in the new unipolar world order. New Delhi obviously wanted to further the isolation of Pakistan in the international community post Kargil. It also wants Pakistan to account for its role in the hijacking of an Indian airliner which in New Delhi’s view revealed Islamabad’s tainted hands in backing terrorists linked to the Taliban regime in Kabul. Indeed, New Delhi’s arguments against Clinton’s visit to Pakistan revolved around issues relating to Pakistan’s support for terrorism, an issue which New Delhi sees as a basis for greater Indo-US cooperation. India of course is not unaware of the US’ sovereign right to choose the countries for its President to visit. It is difficult for India, however, to forget that because of Pakistan’s backing for the Kashmiri separatists, it faces the prospects of a prolonged and increasingly vicious proxy war. Moreover, India can be forgiven for viewing the Clinton visit to Pakistan as an endorsement of its military rule and terrorism, particularly since neither President Eisenhower nor President Carter visited Pakistan when they came to this country in 1959 and 1978 respectively, at the heights of the US-Pakistan alliance relationship in the Cold War era. From New Delhi’s perspective, the Clinton visit to Pakistan might encourage the Pakistani belief that it is in a position to arm-twist the US on matters that affect its regional interests. The US decision has clearly dismayed the Vajapayee government. In an interview with the French daily ‘Le Figaro’ Mr. Vajpayee had said that while Clinton certainly had a right to stop in Islamabad, “a visit to Pakistan while this country is under military dictatorship and sponsors Islamic terrorism around the world would be very badly received by Indian public opinion.” Islamabad, on the other hand, has been quick to express satisfaction with the Clinton stopover decision. From its perspective, the trip vindicates the military regime’s position on South Asian issues. Indeed, Pakistani officials have linked Clinton’s decision to his desire to resolve the Kashmir problem and bring peace to (the) region. As for the White House itself, it insists that the President’s Pakistan stopover serves a number of key US national interests and does not amount to approval of, or acquiescence in, the government of General Pervez Musharraf. Washington also stresses that President Clinton was not planning to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. Others have reacted along the same lines. Benazir Bhutto,a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, does not find in Clinton’s visit to Pakistan any help for the military to stay in power. She is of the opinion that the return to democracy in Pakistan has to do more with its people than the visit of the President and that in the context of the gathering war hysteria, such a visit can help maintain balance and promote peace in the region. A New York Times editorial that had earlier asked Clinton to avoid making the stopover now advises the President that he should keep his visit there “as brief as possible,” and should press Musharraf to sever ties with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and raise the other issues that the Administration was keen on. It adds that Clinton should not “flinch from telling Gen. Musharraf what he must do to win American and world respect.” Several prominent US Congressmen, belonging to the Congressional Caucus on India have advised Clinton to press the military junta on democracy, terrorism and non-proliferation. The return of democracy, in their view, should be the main item on the agenda and the military dictator must give a certain schedule for the country to return to the democratic process. New Delhi’s unhappiness with the Clinton visit to Pakistan, therefore, must be viewed in the context of the overall spirit of one-upmanship that India and Pakistan have developed against each other. India, in fact, had little to lose from the Presidential visit to Pakistan, while Mussaraf’s fear was that a Clinton snub might be directed against his own regime, leading to his own downfall. The military administration, hence warned Washington against skipping Islamabad from Clinton’s South Asian itinerary under the spacious argument that irate fundamentalists might trigger a full-fledged cross-border war. Instead of sulking about what may seem for India to be a foreign policy setback and failure of the Indian Lobby in Washington, New Delhi should try to make the most of the visit on the economic and strategic front. After all, the issues that President Clinton wants Pakistan to address are important to India as well. Any short-term diplomatic achievements that India was expecting to get from preventing the Clinton visit to Islamabad should not be allowed to overshadow India’s long term national security concerns in developing a closer strategic understanding with the US.

(The author is Research Coordinator for the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, Bhubaneswar, INDIA & Adjunct Research Associate with the University of Toronto – York University Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, Toronto, Canada)

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