TOPICS: Bush visit to Pakistan

President Bush’s abilities as an opening batsman may be tested when he visits Pakistan this week. Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, said that when the US president attends a “cricket event’’ on March 4 in Islamabad, it is uncertain whether he plans to watch or play. “Who knows what he’ll do?” As Bush steps up to the crease, the official spin on his one-day visit, which follows a trip to India and precedes a stopover in Afghanistan, is that Washington has Pakistan’s interests at heart.

The bilateral agenda includes counter-terrorism, the Kashmir dispute with India, and elections promised next year by Pakistan’s president Gen Pervez Musharraf. But Bush, pointing to US help after last October’s earthquake, is keen to demonstrate the common touch. “This is a relationship that’s much bigger than the ‘war on terror’,” he told Pakistan television at the weekend. Pakistanis should know “that the American people care about them”.

This feeling is not reciprocated in some quarters. Much of the country is in uproar, ostensibly over the Danish cartoons scandal. Islamist parties, principally the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), have used the row and visit to stoke opposition to Gen Musharraf and his US alliance, linking it to “anti-Muslim” US actions along the Afghan border and in Iraq and exploiting economic discontent.

Gen Musharraf’s hold on power was weaker than at any time since 1999, said Ayaz Amir, a Dawn newspaper columnist. “Since beleaguered governments are prone to clutch at straws, we can expect Islamabad to gloat over the Bush visit. Given the tide of anti-Americanism in the country, it is more likely to be a huge embarrassment if not an outright kiss of death.” Graham Usher, writing from Islamabad for The Nation, said: “The Islamists in Pakistan have never been so powerful”. A government official said that was an exaggeration. Gen Musharraf had strengthened grassroots democracy, he said, and the economy was expanding. Next year’s elections, including a presidential contest, would go ahead.

But Human Rights Watch said Bush should press Gen Musharraf to stand down, claiming he had weakened mainstream political parties and democratic processes. Bush, a keen Musharraf admirer, is likely to ignore such advice. Although the US says it wants faster progress on restoring democracy, Pakistan’s primary importance to US remains its key role in helping fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In India, similarly hard-headed calculations will be in play. Bush will seek a strengthened strategic and economic partnership, partly through nuclear cooperation, to help offset the rise of China. He says he will push for a Kashmir solution. But more pressing in American eyes is the need to stiffen Indian support for apparently contradictory curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities. The US is also urging cancellation of a joint gas pipeline project with Tehran. As in Pakistan, such US aims are controversial. To achieve them, Bush will need to show deft footwork amid hostile bowling. — The Guardian