Washington, Feb. 26: After all the talk about General Pervez Musharraf’s fight against terrorism and Pakistan’s role as America’s trusted ally, US President George W. Bush may not spend the night in Islamabad when he visits the city on March 4.
According to highly-placed American sources who spoke on condition of anonymity in view of the secrecy surrounding presidential travel arrangements, a contingency plan is being drawn up for Bush to make a surprise visit to Afghanistan on March 4 after his meetings with Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
Bush may then sleep over at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan instead of Islamabad, which many security officials here consider to be the most dangerous capital on earth for Americans, let alone the US President.
Bush told two Pakistani journalists in an interview at the White House on Wednesday that he “never thought about cancelling ' no, zero, zero chance” ' his visit to Pakistan because of the ongoing violence there over cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper.
But the considered view in the US security establishment is that Pakistani security has been deeply penetrated by elements sympathetic to the jihad against America and that Musharraf is not in total control on the ground.
When Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, visited Pakistan in March 2000, he used a decoy executive jet to land in Rawalpindi’s Chakala airbase from Mumbai.
After bidding farewell to his hosts in Mumbai, Clinton headed towards the huge aircraft that was publicly designated to take him to Rawalpindi, but ducked around its nose at the last minute and headed for two small Gulfstream Executive Jets obscurely parked on the other side of the big plane.
One of these executive jets had regular blue-and-white US markings while the other was unmarked.
Not wanting to take any chances with the Stinger missiles in the armoury of the Taliban, Clinton’s security detail did not tell the Pakistanis that the President was travelling by a decoy aircraft.
Clinton arrived in Pakistan unannounced on one of the two Gulfstreams and the regular presidential aircraft landed ' as if it was carrying the President ' after Clinton was on his way in a motorcade to Islamabad.
Just as the Pakistanis were upset six years ago by America’s total lack of confidence in Pakistan as a safe host country for VIPs, any decision by Bush to fly to Bagram after his state dinner hosted by Musharraf next Saturday will be unpleasant for the general and his junta.
Therefore, sections of the Bush administration, which are alert to Pakistani sensitivities, are arguing against any such last-minute changes in the presidential itinerary.
But as with all bureaucracies, this group too does not want to take chances with presidential security and discussions are under way here to find a justification for the changes, in case they are implemented.
Indian government has given special permission for specific arms and ammunition being flown in by the American “advance teams” for Bush’s security in the country. Some 800 personnel are coming to India.