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Musharraf pulls off US military coup

Washington/Islamabad, March 18: Fifty years after Pakistan joined two US-led military alliances — the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (Seato) and the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento) — it has pulled off another spectacular diplomatic-military coup.

US secretary of state Colin Powell announced in Islamabad today that President George W. Bush will soon elevate Pakistan to the status of a “major non-Nato ally”. With this announcement, Pakistan joins an exclusive group of nations such as Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand and Jordan in receiving US military aid and arms.

“I advised the foreign minister (Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri) this morning that we will be making notification to our Congress that will designate Pakistan as a major non-Nato ally for purposes of our future military-military relations,” Powell said.

Addressing the concerns of an uneasy Delhi, Powell later said the US wanted to have the “same relationship” with India, which has agreed on a “strategic partnership” with the US. In May 1954, Pakistan signed its first mutual defence assistance agreement with the US. Four months later, Pakistan was admitted to Cento and Seato.

History is witness that such staunch US support, cemented through military ties with Islamabad, emboldened Pakistan’s military government to fight two wars with India.

By the end of Powell’s visit to Pakistan today, it was apparent that Musharraf, like his predecessors in uniform in Islamabad’s driving seat, had managed to armtwist the Americans.

A non-Nato ally may use US funding to lease some defence items and it becomes eligible for loans of military supplies for research and development projects.

The designation also makes a country eligible to buy depleted uranium ammunition, to have US-owned military stockpiles on its territory outside US bases and to receive US military training on easier financial terms.

Musharraf also managed to get Powell to agree to a deal on Pakistanis, thought to be several hundred, held at US prison camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan.

Such agreements are usually worked out in advance by diplomats and only announced formally during ministerial visits. But it was clear today that there was no such agreement prior to Powell’s arrival in Islamabad and that Musharraf had managed to extract the deal from the Americans.

At the joint news conference, Kasuri departed from his prepared text to make an impromptu announcement about Pakistani prisoners.

It is understood that the prisoners, who have not been charged or given access to lawyers, will now be screened by Pakistan’s interior ministry.

Musharraf’s trump card in extracting concessions from the US is Osama bin Laden. With elections in Spain causing dents in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq and the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq taking a heavy toll on the prestige of the White House with massive bomb attacks by anti-American insurgents in Baghdad and Basra, Bush is desperate to lay his hands on bin Laden before the November presidential poll.

It is widely expected that the promise of military cooperation with the US, including arms sales, implicit in today’s announcement, will help Musharraf overcome opposition within the army about intensifying armed operations in the suspected hideouts of bin Laden within Pakistan, possibly with the involvement of American soldiers.

There were hints today that a deal had also been reached on A.Q. Khan, the now-discredited father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

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