- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday stood next to President Bush and refused to answer a reporter’s question about what persuaded him to oppose the Taliban after the September 11 attacks, saying his book contract prevents it.

Minutes later, when asked whether American troops would be allowed to strike at Osama bin Laden should he be found in Pakistan, neither president gave a yes-or-no answer, with Gen. Musharraf calling the issue “the semantics of the tactics of how to deal with the situation.”

The man to whom Mr. Bush has hitched his wagon as a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism in Central Asia is a complicated character — an elected president who first ascended by bloodless military coup, and who still retains his role as army chief of staff.

Human rights advocates and some members of Congress have questioned the pace of progress in Pakistan, while military analysts wonder whether Gen. Musharraf could do more to root out al Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding in his country’s remote regions.

But for Mr. Bush, Gen. Musharraf is one of the Muslim leaders he is trying to promote as a moderate fighting extreme elements, along with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“This president is a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan, and I appreciate your leadership,” Mr. Bush said at a joint appearance after morning talks at the White House. “These extremists who can’t stand the thought of a moderate leader leading an important country like Pakistan want to kill the president. That should say things to the people of Pakistan and the people of America.”

Yesterday’s hot topic was Gen. Musharraf’s revelation to CBS News that in 2001, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s intelligence chief to side with the United States against the Taliban or to, “‘be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.’”

Gen. Musharraf revealed this in an interview with “60 Minutes” to air tomorrow, in advance of the release of his memoirs, which is being published by Simon & Schuster. Both the news network and the book publisher are owned by CBS Corp.

Mr. Armitage denies having used those words, and Mr. Bush yesterday said he didn’t know about the conversation, but said Gen. Musharraf signaled early on he would be an ally.

For his part, Gen. Musharraf brushed aside the question.

“I am launching my book on the 25th, and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day,” he said.

Speaking at George Washington University later in the day, Gen. Musharraf again was asked about the comment and said, “We joined the war on terror not really for the world as much as for ourselves.

“Pakistan is together to fight extremism in all its complexities, and maybe people could learn from us — we are on board in the war against terrorism,” he said.

Gen. Musharraf pointed out that since that time, Pakistan’s economy has grown, the gross domestic product has increased, the per-capita income has doubled and foreign direct investment had leaped by 1,000 percent.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said U.S.-Pakistan relations have always been complicated.

“Pakistan has, ever since the Cold War, made a choice to align itself with the United States, but it’s always kept one leg hanging over the fence in defense of what it perceives as its own national security,” she said.

“On balance, Musharraf is better with us than against us, but could he do more? I believe so,” she said

How much more will be put to the test next week when he returns to the White House for a trilateral meeting with Mr. Bush and Mr. Karzai. The three will try to lessen tensions over a recent agreement Pakistan reached with tribal leaders on the Afghan border that some see as ceding control to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Mrs. Pletka said Pakistan views Afghanistan as providing “strategic depth” should war with India ever break out, so “Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan is just a given.” She said the problem arises when that support crosses the line to become support for Islamic extremists.

Mr. Bush has taken some grief for his support of Gen. Musharraf. He told the United Nations this week that the world should no longer trade away support for freedom and democracy in the hopes of getting stability.

And yet that is exactly what some critics — including democracy advocates in Pakistan — say Mr. Bush is doing with Gen. Musharraf. They point to the Pakistani leader’s broken promise to step down in 2004 as head of the military and his pardon of Abdul Qadeer Khan, “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, who aided North Korea’s program, among others.

For Mr. Bush the balance sheet stacks up differently.

He points to Pakistan’s help earlier this year in busting up the plot to blow up airplanes headed from Britain to the United States, and as a fair dealer in trying to reach agreement with India over the disputed Kashmir region.

Mr. Bush said Gen. Musharraf reassured him Pakistan will hold free and fair elections next year, adding that the Pakistani leader “understands that the best way to defeat radicalism and extremism is to give people a chance to participate in the political process of a nation.”

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