Clinton visit to give Pakistan's military strongman a boost

Click to follow

For an American president, it will be just like the Good Old Days. You can forget all the claptrap about Washington's concern for democracy and human rights - just as you could when Johnson and Nixon and Carter hobnobbed with the Vietnamese generals, Pinochet's acolytes and the Shah of Iran.

For President Bill Clinton arrives in Pakistan today to shake hands with another "strongman" and discuss America's obsession: security, Islamic "terror" and the fear that someone else - a Muslim nation, for heaven's sake - might be amassing a nuclear stockpile.

So it is that the leader of the Free World will drive into Islamabad this morning past thousands of soldiers, riot police and Punjabi Special Forces - "Elite," it says on their trucks, the word accompanied by a picture of three bullets - to "engage" the country's military ruler, to talk about "dialogue" and to view the legend already strung along the highway from the airport by the general's loyal followers: "Unity. Faith. Discipline." Vichy France had a similar logo: "Family. Fatherland. Work." Plus ça change.

True, General Pervez Musharraf is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill dictator. His coup d'etat in Pakistan last October embraced a minister or two - including the prime minister himself, Nawaz Sharif - but there were no mass round- ups, no secret executions, no massacres. Perhaps Pakistan, so raddled with corruption, so sunk in political lethargy, does not lend itself to such brutality, although Mr Sharif does face the hangman's noose if convicted of treason, hijacking, kidnapping and a host of others sins.

And already the US administration is spinning the human factor. Mr Clinton has told the world he doesn't want Mr Sharif hanged "if convicted" - note the touching faith in Pakistani justice - and doesn't believe the general's latest proposal, for "democratic" local government elections next year, goes far enough. And he's a bit upset about that latest ban on political rallies - imposed, you've guessed it, because of the American president's visit.

But Mr Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, are not coming here to chat about the issues which might save Pakistan from ultimate collapse into anarchy - only about those things which cater to Washington's conviction that the world is threatened by alien "terrorists", most of whom who were trained by the CIA. Mr Clinton wants the general to close down Afghan Mujahedin bases in Pakistan, to cut its ties with the Taliban regime in Kabul and to secure the arrest - and here we are back to America's latest Menace - of Osama bin Laden.

If Pakistan is suffering a little local difficulty with democracy, it can still be a "loyal ally" of the West. Just close down the bad guys. The fact that all these problems arose from Washington's meddling in Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion is unlikely to be raised, even by the Pakistan foreign ministry officials who angrily inform visitors that "we won the Cold War for you".

No, the real story has more to do with General Musharraf's relations with the American military. In particular his cosy friendship - trumpeted in the Pakistani press and admitted in Washington - with the US commander responsible for South Asia, General Anthony Zinni. An old chum of the Pakistani general, General Zinni made no secrets of his views about the country before the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

"When the US isolates the professional Pakistani military, we deny ourselves access to the most powerful institution in Pakistan society," he said. "This may hamper our non-proliferation and counter-terrorism efforts. Furthermore, in the larger strategic sense, Pakistan can play a stabilising role in the region."

The fact that the army is only all-powerful because it staged a military coup, the idea that counter-terrorism should take precedence over what the opposition regards as state terror, the suggestion that a dictatorship can be "stabilising" - could there be a more forthright explanation of America's determination to talk to a general who has overthrown a democratically elected government?

True, the regime of Nawaz Sharif - who was chatting to Mr Clinton himself only a few short months ago - was corrupt. His hoodlums broke up Supreme Court proceedings, while stories of his housing, tractor and taxi schemes - all allegedly creaming cash for the party faithful - have long gone the rounds in Islamabad.

There are Pakistanis who believe that General Musharraf really wants to "return Pakistan to real democracy". But then again, that's what they all say. And when you read the Pakistani press, you can make up your own mind. General Musharraf, announced one fawning report in The Frontier Post, is "a leader in the making" who "blushes when his wife discusses their courtship and becomes sentimental when he speaks of his friends ... there is no subterfuge, no game-playing". Better still, "the first thing you notice about (the general) are his manicured hands," the journalist reported. "They are the fine hands of an aesthete."

Today, Mr Clinton will be grasping them firmly in his.