Musharraf, in Washington, seeks U.S. debt relief, trade favors; opposition likely on textiles

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a White House meeting this week with President Bush, Pakistan's president hopes to gain help to rejuvenate his country's economy and bolster his political standing with Pakistan's Islamic establishment.

Bush is expected to go at least part way toward meeting President Pervez Musharraf's request for debt relief to revive his country's ailing economy, a senior administration official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Musharraf, who arrives Tuesday and meets with Bush on Wednesday, will not get everything he wants. Southern congressmen, out to protect the South-based U.S. clothing industry, bitterly oppose Pakistan's move to sell more textiles in the United States.

Also, top American diplomats have been carefully evenhanded on the issue of Kashmir, to nurture close ties with another key regional player, Pakistan's bitter rival, India.

Nevertheless, when Musharraf and Bush get together, the Pakistani will get, along with promises of debt relief, warm thanks from Bush for his decision to support the U.S.-led war on terror.

Because of Musharraf's receptiveness to American overtures, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has made a startling turnaround in a few short months.

U.S. officials are keenly aware that Musharraf's decision to align with the United States holds ``inherent political risks'' for him, ``because of the militant Islamic and anti-American sentiments that exist within Pakistan,'' the director of the CIA, George Tenet, told Congress last week.

To bolster Musharraf's standing and reward his support since Sept. 11, the United States already has dropped long-standing economic sanctions, committed as much as $600 million in various loans and aid and strongly pushed the International Monetary Fund to give Pakistan a $135 million loan.

Military ties are close, and the Pentagon is busy repaying Pakistan for the use of its air bases, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week. He praised Pakistan for ``doing just enormously cooperative things for the United States of America in the war on terrorism.''

The September attacks gave Musharraf a chance to set his country on a fresh course away from Islamic fundamentalism, said Teresita Schaffer, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Now, Pakistan wants Washington to reward Musharraf by forgiving the country's $3 billion official debt, encouraging U.S. investment in Pakistan and opening the huge American market to Pakistani exports, especially textiles.

But U.S. textile manufacturers have argued against further lowering of tariffs against Pakistan.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said it makes no sense to worry about Pakistan's economy when so many rural American towns that depend on clothing factories are in trouble.

Grant Aldonas, undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department, said Monday the United States is having conversations about what it can do to help Pakistan.

``We would like to put together a constructive relationship,'' Aldonas said. ``Anything we can do would be helpful.''

Politically, Musharraf cannot afford, in the eyes of Islamic militants, to be seen as selling out to India, particularly on Kashmir, Schaffer said.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States, strong allies in the Cold War, had deteriorated over the years, especially after the country tested nuclear devices in 1998 and Musharraf seized power and overthrew an elected government the next year.

Pakistan also had been a major supporter of ruling Taliban militia.

That changed after Sept. 11. Under strong pressure from Secretary of State Colin Powell, Musharraf abandoned the hard-line Islamic militia that ruled next-door Afghanistan and let the United States use its military bases to support the Afghan campaign.

A December attack on India's parliament, however, caused a new crisis.

India blamed Pakistan for not doing enough to combat Pakistan-based Kashmiri militants, whom it blamed for the attack. The two countries' half-century fight over Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan that has triggered two of the countries' three wars, put the United States in a delicate position.

During visits to Pakistan and India, Powell repeatedly stressed the need for the two countries to fight terrorism instead of each other.

Yet almost a million soldiers still face each other, on high alert, at the Pakistan-India frontier, keeping war fears high.

Some Pakistanis hope Bush will describe the Kashmir issue publicly as a dispute and urge India to negotiate a settlement. India has ruled out international mediation in the past.

Musharraf has cracked down on Muslim extremists in an attempt to placate India, noted Charles Fairbanks, a South Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University.

``But by doing that, he's really kind of exposed himself,'' Fairbanks said.