Washington, March 15: With the Iraq vote uncertain in the UN Security Council, Osama bin Laden said to be almost within allied grasp and a US President desperate for any straw of support in the Islamic world, Pakistan’s shrewd military dictator yesterday blackmailed the White House into waiving all remaining American sanctions on Islamabad.
The waiver immediately clears the way for $250 million in US aid to Pakistan, which had been held up on account of what had come to be known as the “democracy sanctions”.
But it also opens the way for full-scale cooperation between Washington and Islamabad, including military sales and a long-term strategic alliance.
If that happens, history will only be repeating itself. In 1978, Pervez Musharraf’s predecessor in uniform, General Zia ul-Haq, contemptuously dismissed President Jimmy Carter’s offer of aid following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as “peanuts”.
He then manipulated Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan, into opening Washington’s purse strings and armouries for his regime, which helped create a chain of events culminating in the creation of the Taliban, bin Laden, and finally, the now-powerful radical Islamic parties in Pakistan.
The “democracy sanctions” were imposed on Pakistan soon after Musharraf’s military coup, which overthrew what America acknowledged as the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
These compounded the sanctions imposed after Islamabad tested its nuclear weapons in May 1998. The nuclear sanctions were withdrawn when Musharraf threw his support behind President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks on September 11. The “democracy sanctions” continued, partly because there was opposition on Capitol Hill to waiving them until Pakistan returned to full representative government.
But in one of the biggest ironies in state-to-state relations in modern times, Bush said yesterday that those very sanctions imposed to bring in democracy were being dropped because a waiver “would facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan”.
But if Bush expected Islamabad to be grateful for yesterday’s waiver, it is not — at least not so far. Just as Zia dismissed Carter’s aid offer as “peanuts”, Musharraf’s information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed responded today that the White House action “was overdue by a few months.... This should have come through in October when Pakistan was returned to democracy”.
Pakistan has been using every opportunity provided by its high-profile membership of the UN Security Council during the ongoing Iraq crisis to claim that, with the installation of Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali in office, it is now a full-fledged democracy.
Bush yesterday invited Jamali to come to the White House on March 28. Sources in the administration said this would be followed by a visit by Musharraf to Washington later in the year, indicating that it has been bowled over by Pakistan’s recent capture of al Qaida’s number three, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in Rawalpindi.
The state department is anxious to put on a front that yesterday’s waiver is not a bribe to Pakistan as Washington seeks support in the UN Security Council on Iraq. In any case, as hinted by Musharraf’s spin doctor, Pakistan is unlikely to be persuaded merely by the waiver to change its stand at the UN into supporting war outright.
Taking a leaf out of Turkey’s book in bargaining for the last cent in aid and the final bit of military spare part in defence support, Islamabad is expected in the coming months to raise its stakes in dealing with Washington.
This is because Musharraf now feels that his leverage with the US is unprecedented and that he should make the most of his ability to twist the arm of Bush when the US president is increasingly vulnerable to pressure.
Announcing yesterday’s waiver in a memo to his secretary of state Colin Powell, Bush said the action was also “important to US efforts to respond to, deter, or prevent acts of international terrorism”.
He wrote to Powell that “you are authorised and directed to transmit this determination to the Congress and to arrange for its publication in the Federal Register”, the equivalent in the US of India’s Gazette.