The former US general-turned-secretary-of-state’s perceived softness towards the Pakistani general has led to tensions in interactions between Powell and Indian leaders.
In fact, one meeting between then foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Powell turned out to be anything but cordial and Singh did some plain-speaking in their talks vis-a-vis General Musharraf.
Bush administration officials have said in background briefings reported in The Telegraph that it was Powell who picked up the phone as the US prepared for the war against the Taliban and al Qaida and gave Musharraf an ultimatum to dump the religious fundamentalists who had hijacked Afghanistan.
Powell gave the Pakistani strongman a mere 24 hours to fall in line and prove to Bush that he was with the US, not against it. Or face the consequences.
Musharraf complied and dumped Pakistan’s progeny across the border, the Taliban.
The interview by the President to Woodward is the first formal, on-the-record acknowledgement of Powell’s role in making Pakistan a US ally in the anti-terrorist coalition.
Although Musharraf’s compliance was extracted virtually at the point of the gun, it has been endlessly speculated here that Powell owes Pakistan’s President a debt of gratitude for facilitating the most important military link in the attack on the Taliban and al Qaida a year ago.
And for what Bush now openly acknowledges as one of the biggest contributions by the secretary of state to his administration.
The acknowledgement is important to Powell who has been an odd man out in the Bush team. Woodward’s book chronicles Powell’s isolation in the Bush administration and the sniping against the secretary of state by Vice-President Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other hardliners on foreign and military policies.
There are indications in the book that Bush himself owes a deep debt to Musharraf for his support, as Indians have at times worried.
Woodward recalls a meeting between Bush and Musharraf in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had shortly before published an article in The New Yorker magazine, which spoke of a Pentagon plan to seize Islamabad’s nuclear weapons with help from Israel if Pakistan was seen as disintegrating.
Bush was outraged. He wanted to put Musharraf at ease and give him confidence. “Seymour Hersh is a liar,” Bush is quoted as thundering to Musharraf at their meeting.
A touching account in the book relates to the brief time when First Lady Laura Bush joined the President during the interview with Woodward.
The couple acknowledges that the First Lady did caution her husband against using “West Texas tough guy” rhetoric against terrorists such as the President’s statement saying he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”.
“It just didn’t sound that appealing to me, really,” she is quoted as saying. “I mean, I have — I just said, ‘Tone it down, darling.’”
Woodward, who has been appearing on TV talks shows this week about the book, said Laura Bush acknowledged to the surprise of the President that she could not sleep after September 11.
And she told Bush she knew he was lying awake in bed as well night after night.