Pakistan Braces as Bush Starts Visit
President Brushes Aside Security Concerns to Pay Tribute to Key Ally on Home Turf

By Jim VandeHei and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 4, 2006

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 3 -- President Bush arrived here from New Delhi on Friday night to pay tribute to President Pervez Musharraf, an army general who is a key ally in the administration's global war on terrorism but who has resisted both democratic reforms and aggressive moves against hard-line Islamic groups at home.

In a visit that exemplifies the contradictory impulses of U.S. foreign policy in the region, Bush brushed aside serious security concerns to make an overnight stop in Pakistan.

Authorities were bracing for possible unrest in connection with the visit, which follows several weeks of sometimes violent protests sparked by the publication in European newspapers of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

[Early Saturday morning, police detained Imran Khan, a former international cricket star and member of parliament, and placed him under house arrest just hours before he was to lead a protest march against Bush and Musharraf near Islamabad. In a telephone interview from his home in the capital, Khan accused the Pakistani leader of having him detained because he is "scared of the public."

Khan said the protest would still go forward and was aimed at highlighting "Bush's double standard, claiming that his foreign policy goal is to promote freedom and democracy in the Muslim world and here's he come to support a military dictator. A serving general running the country and calling it democracy, it's just making fools out of us."]

Streets throughout the country were only lightly traveled Friday, and most businesses remained shuttered, as Pakistanis generally heeded a call by hard-line religious parties for a nationwide strike to protest the cartoons. In addition, there were scattered protests against Bush and Musharraf, including a rally in the city of Multan in central Punjab province that drew a crowd estimated at 10,000, according to the Reuters news agency.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban cleric and the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, told the crowd that Bush's visit was aimed at "enslaving the Pakistani nation and rewarding General Musharraf for his patriotism to America."

In the port city of Karachi, police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to march on the U.S. Consulate, where a suicide bomber killed four people, including a U.S. diplomat, on Thursday.

Aides said Bush planned to use his first visit here to praise Musharraf as an important partner in fighting terrorism. Under his military-led government, Pakistan has killed or captured hundreds of al-Qaeda members -- more than any other country -- and has deployed more than 70,000 troops to the traditionally autonomous tribal region that borders Afghanistan.

Yet some U.S. officials have expressed frustration that Musharraf has not done more to root out Taliban fighters and track down Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda figures, all widely believed to enjoy havens in the rugged areas along the Afghan border.

There are also concerns about Musharraf's stated commitment to democracy, a goal Bush has called essential to defeating terrorism throughout the Muslim world. The Pakistani president, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, espouses a moderate version of Islam. He has installed a civilian prime minister and allowed parliamentary elections. But he retains ultimate power and has reneged on a pledge to step down as army chief.

"Over time, the level of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan has increased," Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said this week. But, he added, "there are still more steps that can be taken to further our cooperation."

The Pakistani leader is still seen, in the words of one senior Pentagon official, as "a force for moderation" in a part of the world where "politics is played by rough rules."

As next year's general elections in Pakistan approach, the administration will have to start weighing its support for Musharraf against the commitment to ensure the restoration of democracy, according to U.S. officials. Bush said in a speech last week that the election would "be an important test of Pakistan's commitment to democratic reform."

For now, the U.S. focus is on obtaining even more help from Musharraf in attacking al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds, following a year in which terrorist violence in Afghanistan has increased dramatically. A top White House official said that during the two leaders' joint appearances Saturday, Bush planned to stress Musharraf's assistance and play down disputes over democratic reforms.

Despite Bush's tendency to portray policies in black and white , aides said the president was satisfied with the shades of gray in the Musharraf alliance. As in his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, another U.S. ally who has sometimes stifled democracy, they said Bush appreciated Musharraf based in part on a gut instinct about his allegiance.

Although Musharraf at one time accepted the repressive rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was one of the first foreign leaders to side with Bush when confronted with the U.S. president's ultimatum after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: that governments must stand with or against the United States in the hunt for terrorists. Since then, Bush has expressed admiration for Musharraf's toughness.

"He has had a direct stake in this fight -- four times the terrorists have tried to kill him," Bush said in India, the previous stop on his South Asian trip. Musharraf survived two direct assassination attempts in 2003, as well as a failed car bombing and an alleged assassination plot in 2002. He has also been a target of protests by Islamic groups who distrust the United States and condemn him as an American pawn.

In some ways, Bush's entire trip to the subcontinent this week -- including a brief, heavily guarded, unannounced stop in Afghanistan and the elaborate two-day visit to India -- has highlighted his evolution from an us-against-them unilateralist to a leader more willing to compromise and cut deals. Although India has long refused to sign the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Bush announced an agreement there Thursday that will allow India to substantially increase its nuclear arsenal and obtain U.S. assistance to expand its nuclear energy program. In part, the deal was made because U.S. officials see India as a counterweight to China and a potentially lucrative trading partner.

In a speech Friday night in New Delhi, Bush extolled the growing economic ties between the world's two largest democracies.

"Our two great democracies are now united by opportunities that can lift our people, and by threats than can bring down all our progress," he said. "The United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world."

Despite the upbeat visit, anti-American protests were held around India Friday. The demonstrations were mostly small, but one erupted into a deadly fight between Muslims and Hindus in the city of Lucknow, leaving at least three people dead, the Associated Press reported.

In New Delhi, Bush urged India to accept the increasingly close U.S.-Pakistani relationship. India, predominantly Hindu, and Pakistan, a Muslim country, are neighbors and nuclear rivals that have fought several wars, mostly over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

"I believe that a prosperous, democratic Pakistan will be a steadfast partner for America, a peaceful neighbor for India and a force for freedom and moderation in the Arab world," he said. Afterward, Fred Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Bush had meant to say "Muslim world." Pakistan is not an Arab country.

Unlike India's growing relationship with the United States, Pakistan's has been based almost exclusively on the two nations' military alliance. In exchange for helping hunt down terrorists, Bush has provided direct aid to Pakistan and offered to sell it F-16 fighter jets.

Aides said Bush was calculating that this relationship was worth the risk of visiting the Pakistani capital during a period of violence. Security will be tight, however, and several U.S. officials privately raised concerns about the safety of Bush and his entourage.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who urged Musharraf to make political reforms when he visited here as president in 2000, Bush is expected to focus on strengthening military cooperation.

U.S. authorities have pressed Pakistan for months to accept more U.S. military assistance in counterterrorism operations. Over the past year, the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have made strides in developing a common electronic system for tracking their forces on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. They also have expanded a training program to share information on counterterrorism techniques.

But Pakistan has continued to balk at the idea of combined operations with U.S. forces, a sensitive issue for many Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the Musharraf government has made only limited efforts to hunt down or attack suspected militant hideouts in the volatile, semiautonomous tribal regions.

Even though thousands of Pakistani troops have been sent to the border area, a senior U.S. military officer said, most have tended to stay in garrisons rather than conduct aggressive patrols. Most of the al-Qaeda members caught or killed by Pakistan have been in settled areas of the country, the officer added.

Up to now, U.S. officials have appeared reluctant to push Musharraf too hard in public, regarding him and the Pakistani military as bulwarks against Islamic radicalism. He is seen as constrained by the fierce independence of border tribesmen and the strength of hard-line Islamic parties that control North-West Frontier province and dominate Baluchistan province.

In 2004, a highly publicized army attack on a suspected al-Qaeda border hideout backfired when villagers and Islamic fighters fought back, killing 46 troops. Earlier this week, military helicopters and troops assaulted another tribal outpost, and Pakistani officials said 45 Islamic militants were killed.

Even so, some outside experts on Pakistan detect an emerging divide in the Bush administration over how hard to lean on Musharraf.

"I think there's more concern at the Pentagon than at the State Department on the huge gap between Musharraf's rhetoric and reality," said Samina Ahmed, of the nonprofit International Crisis Group.

With elections scheduled next year in Pakistan, some experts said U.S. officials should begin working to strengthen the secular political parties that have been weakened under military rule.

"It's in our interest to begin to look to a post-Musharraf period and not to put all our chips on him," said Stephen P. Cohen, of the Brookings Institution. "The senior leadership here in Washington seems to believe that he's our only option."

Graham reported from Washington. Correspondent John Lancaster in Islamabad contributed to this report .

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