By Our Staff Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Feb 12: Coinciding with General Pervez Musharraf's first official visit to Washington, the United States has expressed its backing for a dialogue between Pakistan and India and urged restraint by both countries to 'help foster an atmosphere in which that dialogue can take place.'
The US has also lent its support to President Musharraf's moves against extremism, praising the 'forthright' stand he took in his Jan 12 speech against terrorism and intolerance that "sets an example for leaders everywhere." Besides the $1 billion already committed, the US is expected to make announcements on further US assistance to Pakistan during Gen Musharraf's visit, which began with his arrival at the Andrews Air Force base from Boston on Tuesday morning. He meets President George Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
A senior State Department official, briefing Washington-based Pakistani journalists, declined to go into the details of additional economic assistance, but referred to Gen Musharraf's commitment to reform Pakistan's economy and educational system, saying President Bush would be talking to the Pakistani leader about how the US could assist in the process. The official also underlined American interest in the restoration of Pakistan's elected-democratic government. "We are pleased by President Musharraf's announcement that national and provincial elections will be held this fall on schedule, as part of a larger commitment to the reestablishment of the democratic political system," the senior official said. "We are pleased by the recent announcement by the government of electoral reforms, particularly its welcome decision to institute a joint-electorate system." Asked to comment on Gen Musharraf's reported decision to declare himself president for five years, the senior official said no mechanism had been disclosed toward this end and indicated that it would be premature to comment on any such proposal at this point.
Noting that Pakistan's support had been essential in the objective of rooting terrorist organizations out of Afghanistan, the senior official said the US would be talking to Gen Musharraf about how to further pursue this goal and to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan. Sending out a somewhat different signal, The Washington Post, in an editorial on the Musharraf visit, expressed the view on Tuesday that the general's crackdown on militants had not been entirely "uncompromising," and that many militants had been allowed to remain free in exchange for "lying low." The paper said the US should make it clear to the general that he must decisively break free from terrorists on the Kashmir front also, and the Bush administration should weigh whether it can help galvanize a peace process between India and Pakistan without compromising its long-standing neutrality in the conflict.
The senior State Department official briefing Pakistani journalists was also asked about a possible US role in settling disputes between Islamabad and New Delhi when it was stated that Washington was proceeding on the basic premise that the two sides wanted to settle their differences. "We do want to help, to offer our good offices, but we can't go beyond," saying that the two countries should want this to happen. Recent events had underlined the importance of a dialogue between the two countries, the official said.
The official also reiterated the usual US formulation that it did not wish to look at either India or Pakistan through the prism of bilateral relations with one or the other country, treating each on its own. A Pakistani official described the Musharraf visit as part of an effort to bring the bilateral relationship with the US more in sync with the post-cold war world. At the White House talks on Wednesday, Gen Musharraf will be assisted by the finance and commerce ministers, the foreign secretary and Pakistan Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi.
The president will be staying at the Blair House, where, among his callers, would be Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil and former head of the United States Central Command Gen Zinni, who reportedly was among those contacted immediately after the 1999 military coup.