Washington, Jan. 2: With final touches being given to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s journey to an Islamabad under a protective siege, President George W. Bush yesterday expressed strong confidence in the security in Pakistan.
Bush told reporters after a New Year’s Day quail hunt with his father in his home state of Texas that he had spoken to General Pervez Musharraf “and he sounded very confident that his security forces would be able to deal with the threat”.
Referring directly to the Saarc summit and meetings on the margins of the summit, Bush said: “We are hopeful that the Indians and the Pakistanis in upcoming meetings will be able to begin a dialogue on a variety of issues. It looks like they’re making progress toward reconciling differences.
“Slowly but surely, positive things are taking place, and I commend the leaders of both countries for taking steps toward a peaceful reconciliation of major issues that have divided them.”
Coinciding with the final preparations for the Saarc summit, secretary of state Colin Powell wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine this week that the US has “been trying to turn our parallel improvement of relations with India and Pakistan into a triangle of conflict resolution. We do not impose ourselves as a mediator. But we do try to use the trust we have established with both sides to urge them toward conciliation by peaceful means”.
Powell said “what the US has done in South Asia is an example of turning adversity into opportunity”.
Describing Musharraf as a “stand-up guy” when it comes to dealing with terrorists, Bush appeared to give a longer rope to Pakistan on its nuclear programme than non-proliferation officials in his administration have been willing to do since allegations in recent weeks that nuclear technology from Islamabad had been sold to Tehran.
“They are secure,” Bush said of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. He equated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme with that of India by adding that “it is also important that India, as well, have a secure nuclear weapons programme”.
The comments by Bush are in line with suggestions doing the diplomatic rounds here that the idea of a nuclear weapons free zone in South Asia should be revived so that the bomb-making programmes of both India and Pakistan could be rolled back and eliminated.
The comments also indicate that following two attempts on Musharraf’s life, Washington may be willing to ease the pressure on Musharraf on proliferation, at least temporarily.
Answering questions from reporters about the recent attempts on Musharraf’s life, Bush said: “Obviously terrorists are after him...I told him how much I was hopeful that he continued to join us in the war on terror.”
Bush repeated his praise of Musharraf as “a friend of the US...We are making progress against the al Qaida because of his cooperation”.
Worries within the administration that Musharraf was not doing enough in this regard resonated when the President said “we need to do more, particularly on the Pakistan-Afghan border. He (Musharraf) sounded confident, and therefore I feel confident about his security situation”.
Indian intelligence and security officials are understood to have compared notes with their US counterparts on the security threat on the ground in Islamabad, ahead of Vajpayee’s trip.
The Americans, with their high-tech superiority, have as big a handle as possible on security in Islamabad, but in deference to Pakistani sensitivities on sovereignty, this is seldom acknowledged.
The Americans, it is learnt, have provided Indians details of President Bill Clinton’s highly protected whistle-stop trip to Islamabad, when the presidential aircraft, Air Force One, was used as a decoy before Clinton landed in Pakistan.
Clinton stayed in Islamabad only for a few hours, and according to one senior Indian intelligence official, there is a fallback plan for Vajpayee to cut short his stay in Pakistan and confine it to the Saarc summit, if the security threats escalate into the red zone.