Fool's Gold in Pakistan

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 29, 2003; Page B07

Turning the other cheek is not one of President Bush's best-known traits. But he is ready to forgive a lot in the case of Pakistan, where a skillful political alchemist is transforming a record of failure, extremism and betrayal into gold from the U.S. Treasury.

A year after U.S. intelligence confirmed that Pakistan had supplied North Korea's rogue regime with nuclear weapons technology, Bush lavished a much-coveted Camp David welcome on President Pervez Musharraf last week. The general also won a $3 billion aid package.

Bush did this at the urging of his defense and spy chiefs, who face the day-to-day demands of hunting down al Qaeda and other terror groups. They are desperate for whatever immediate cooperation they can squeeze, cajole or buy from Pakistan. But they risk confusing the urgent with the important.

Their needs force Washington to look the other way as Pakistan's Islamic extremists grow more powerful under Musharraf's rule, as cross-border terrorism continues in Kashmir and India (despite Musharraf's promises to end it "permanently") and as it becomes plain that Musharraf intends to remain president indefinitely.

All this is bad enough. But Musharraf's calculated pushing of the American envelope also imperils what promised to be Bush's most innovative and important foreign policy initiative: the building of a new strategic relationship with democratic India.

The Bush effort on India has been poised to take a giant step forward. At the president's request, India has been considering sending about 20,000 peacekeeping troops for duty in Iraq.

No country could provide more immediate help for the beleaguered U.S. presence there. India's military command is intimately familiar with Iraq, having trained the Iraqi army in the past. Indian troops are experienced peacekeepers. New Delhi is a leader in Third World politics. Its participation could help mute outside criticism of the coalition effort.

But the decision to help may now be held up as India waits to see how Washington will allocate the $1.5 billion in military aid that is part of the five-year package promised to Musharraf at Camp David.

Bush did keep hopes for a yes from India alive when he refused the Pakistani president's request for nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets. But New Delhi will want to know more about which arms were not refused to Musharraf before deciding about an Iraqi mission and deeper engagement with the United States.

When he came to office, Bush did not envision walking a tightrope between these two South Asian enemies. He was impressed with India's large economy, democratic politics and the readiness of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist government to move beyond New Delhi's Cold War fealty to Moscow. Bush set out to make India a meaningful U.S. strategic partner for the first time.

But 9/11 changed U.S. priorities. Pakistan was suddenly needed in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, the very monsters Islamabad had helped create. To justify a first large infusion of difficult-to-monitor aid, the United States leaned heavily on Musharraf to pledge publicly to end extremism at home and halt terror operations against India from Pakistani-held territory.

But no one -- not even Musharraf -- seriously disputes today that the cross-border infiltration from camps run by Pakistan's intelligence services and army continues unabated.

Instead of claiming as he has in the past that there was no infiltration occurring at all, Musharraf told editors and reporters at The Post last week that it was impossible to state with mathematical certainty that movements across the remote, rugged frontier had stopped.

"I can't tell you if there is any cross-border terrorism going on," he said. He responded affirmatively when asked if the position he had conveyed to Bush last week was that he has done everything possible to stop Kashmiri-related terrorism and could do no more. This is a change of emphasis that is certain to upset India.

Musharraf shut off questions about U.S. protests over Pakistan's swapping of nuclear weapons technology for North Korean missiles with a similarly opaque comment: "That chapter is closed." But he carefully avoided disputing that the exchange had occurred, as Pakistani officials have in the past.

Privately, U.S. officials voiced disappointment after the visit that Musharraf gave so little in return for the cash and glory Bush showered on him. But the Pakistani understands the secrets of political alchemy better than they do.

The weaker and more ineffective he seems to become in carrying out his promises, the more the Bush administration will have to give Musharraf to keep him afloat. After all, he proved at Camp David that having some terrorists around to pursue buys a lot of forgiveness.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company