Clinton gives coup leader an easy ride

He was expected to read the riot act to Pakistan's dictator. But he offered only clichés, says Robert Fisk in Islamabad
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The Independent Online

It was a city without people in a country without a voice. There was something almost sinister about President Clinton's cortÿge, his long, sleek limousine swishing at 60mph down the empty autobahn from the airport with its carloads of security boys, tyres hissing at the road junctions, yet not a soul to glimpse the motorcade, not a single Pakistani road-sweeper, not a lone shopper, not even a beggar to note in passing. It was like that scene from On The Beach when the American submariners discover an undamaged San Francisco whose population has already died of radiation sickness.

The Americans preferred it that way. So fearful were they of "terrorist" attack on their president that Clinton's personal jet turned up on the Tarmac of Islamabad's military airport with a cargo of FBI men while the most powerful man on earth slunk in later in an unmarked plane. For a man who was supposed to read the riot act to General Pervez Musharraf, demanding a "crackdown" on "terrorism", increased security, a return to democratic rule and "dialogue" over Kashmir, it was a pathetic performance.

And it produced a dismal result. No promises from the General for an early return to democracy, no hopes for talks on Kashmir. Just a pledge that Pakistan would not sell its nuclear science to third parties - an unlikely event since the country's nuclear technology is so underdeveloped that no one would want to buy it.

In a television address to the Pakistani people, Mr Clinton cut a poor figure, acknowledging the "flawed democracy" of the past - for which General Musharraf must have been profoundly grateful - but claiming that only a "stable, prosperous, democratic Pakistan" had a future. Apparently unaware of the enormous domestic support for Pakistan's nuclear tests, he called upon Islamabad to sign the test-ban treaty and - in a clear reference to the Saudi dissident Ossama Bin Laden - announced that men who used violence were "not heroes". Again this was not a sentiment likely to gain him many friends in Pakistan. Nor was his turgid résumé of Pakistani history - "I know I don't have to tell you all this," he said - which he claimed was "as long as the Indus river." Clichés were never far away.

President Clinton may have presented a "vision statement" to the people of India - vision statements presumably being a more exalted form of the now humble mission statement - but there wasn't much inspiration to his arrival in Islamabad - rather, Washington's familiar catalogue of demands and denials. No, the state department repeated, Clinton wasn't giving encouragement to military rule. But by sitting down with the General, he was surely recognising the authority of the Pakistani "chief executive" who seized power in a coup d'état last October.

We all knew what Mr Clinton wanted. Ossama Bin Laden - he being the latest in the list of what Time magazine calls "Public Enemy No1" - and an end to "terrorism" by the CIA's former mujahedin guerrillas in Afghanistan and an end to the drugs trade and a promise to set off no more nuclear bombs. In other words, he was concentrating on all that was negative about Pakistan. And, of course, he wanted dialogue rather than artillery fire over Kashmir.

In a land whose single cultural unity is represented by the integrity of its quarrel with India, this was a tall order and the General seems to have taken it badly. Not least because of the remarks attributed to the state department that "some elements in the Pakistani government have been involved in the violence in Kashmir".

To Pakistanis, this appeared to be an extension of a claim made in a BBC interview by one of America's ubiquitous "analysts" - this time Michael Krepon of the Henry Stimson Centre in Washington - to the effect that "a bearded man who is often seen with General Musharraf" was a danger to Pakistan. This was an obvious reference to Lieutenant General Aziz Ahmed Khan, Musharraf's chief of the general staff, whose beard is stubbly rather than pointed and Islamic - but whose tonsorial features apparently allowed Mr Krepon to suggest that Muslims within the military might be trying to "sponsor violence" in Pakistan.

Throughout his visit, Mr Clinton did his best to look displeased. He was devoting five hours to Pakistan as opposed to five days in India, and there were none of the cheerful smiles normally extended to the leaders of "friendly nations". Instead, the American president wore that thoughtful, hangdog, slightly puzzled expression that US leaders adopt when they know they are doing something wrong. Nixon put on the same pose on his first visit to Peking, Carter on the White House lawn when he was explaining the "great love of Iranians towards their Shah" amid a cloud of teargas in 1979. By contrast, General Musharraf, dressed in a long white Pakistani kurta jacket, appeared every bit the businessman with whom Americans normally like to deal.

But Clinton was not doing anything very unusual for an American president. All three previous US presidential trips to Pakistan were made to the leaders of military governments. Eisenhower was received by Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1959, Johnson by the same military ruler in 1967, Nixon by General Yahya Khan in 1969.