Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf meets with President Bush today, hoping for a political payoff for risks he has taken to fight Afghan-based terrorists, open up to Israel and stem the long-running guerrilla war in Kashmir.
But analysts say he may be asked to go even further to confront hard-line Islamists who now control the legislatures in two of four Pakistani provinces, including the crucial North West Frontier Province, where some remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban are believed to be hiding.
Gen. Musharraf pleased U.S. officials over the weekend when he said Pakistan could join the handful of Muslim countries that formally recognize Israel. “The sky will not fall” if that happens, he told reporters in Islamabad on Sunday, pointing out that “several Arab countries have good, friendly ties” with Israel.
Similarly, the general has at least partly answered U.S. demands by telling Pakistanis that “compromises will have to be made” on Kashmir, the divided Himalayan territory claimed by both Pakistan and India.
New Delhi regularly accuses Pakistan of providing training and material support to Muslim insurgents responsible for years of terror attacks on security forces and civilians in the Indian-held Kashmir Valley.
Sixteen persons were killed and 40 wounded there in a 24 hour-period that ended yesterday, and Mr. Bush is expected to ask the Pakistani president to do more to halt infiltration across the border from his country.
Political fallout from the Israel and Kashmir moves — both opposed by the country’s increasingly strong Islamist movement — have contributed to Gen. Musharraf’s declining popularity.
But even more costly for the general has been his cooperation with U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. On Saturday, the United States and Pakistan quietly launched a joint patrol, Operation United Resolve, along the Afghan border.
Using ground and air support and pro-government Afghan militiamen, the operation is tracking down fugitive al Qaeda and Taliban members blamed for almost daily attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has already handed over some 450 suspected al Qaeda members to the United States, and last week the two countries joined Afghanistan in forming a joint committee to explore ways to strengthen the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai.
Having taken risks for the Bush administration, Gen. Musharraf will be looking for a strong show of American support that would boost his sagging popularity and discourage political enemies who would like to oust him.
Opposition forces “may still continue their anti-Musharraf rhetoric, but will reconsider their efforts to bring him down” if they think the president has solid U.S. backing, said Irshad Ahmad Haqqani, Pakistan’s most popular columnist, who writes for the mass circulation Jang newspaper.
In a sign of the importance that the White House accords the visit, the general has been invited to Camp David, Md., becoming the first South Asian leader to visit the presidential retreat.
Another major concession Gen. Musharraf would do well to obtain is the delivery of 28 F-16 jets Pakistan bought more than 13 years ago. Their release was held up over U.S. concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Recent developments, such as Washington’s approval for Israel to sell the $1 billion Phalcon airborne radar system to India, are likely to soften the opposition to the release of the F-16s to Pakistan.
Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar has said his side will bring up the matter with U.S. diplomats. “There is no harm in raising the issue,” he said.