Bush Visits Allies in Pakistan

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When President Clinton went to Pakistan in 2000, the security situation was so bad that he did a last-minute switch of airplanes. As he left India to go to Pakistan, Clinton walked toward an official U.S. jet — and then got into an unmarked aircraft that would be less easily identified by terrorists. And that was before 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, not to mention multiple attempts on the life of the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf.

The bombing Thursday in Karachi that killed an American diplomat and at least three Pakistanis was just the latest sign that Pakistan remains a haven for Islamic terrorists, even as President Bush comes here to praise Musharraf for his support in the war against al-Qaeda. While the White House has touted its growing strategic partnership with India on this trip, it is still very much wedded to Pakistan. As National Security Adviser Steven Hadley put it, Pakistan is at once a “battleground and an ally” in this war. Not surprisingly, President Bush refused to cancel or alter his visit to Pakistan after the Karachi bombing."Terrorists and killers are not going to prevent me from going to Pakistan," President Bush said during a press conference in India shortly after the bombings. Privately he told aides, according to a senior White House official, that “anyone who thinks we’re changing plans is mistaken.”

But the President wasn’t taking any chances. When Bush winged into a Pakistan military base on Friday night, Air Force One’s lights were dimmed and passengers were instructed to draw their shades. Despite the cloak of darkness, there was still a greeting party for the President — half-a-dozen local TV crews and a banner touting “President George W. Bush — A Friend of Pakistan,” complete with pictures of Bush and Musharraf. A slew of helicopters were there as well, and it was hard to tell which one Bush got aboard, according to pool reporters on the scene, presumably for the purpose of throwing off any potential terrorists. Despite the risks, Administration officials said they were comfortable with the security arrangements. "It is something that they reassess up to the point where we head to Pakistan,” said National Security Adviser Steven Hadley. “And at this point people are comfortable that the necessary precautions are in place."

That was my own impression early on Saturday morning as I and about a hundred members of the press flew into Islamabad on an accompanying press charter. This planned capital, with its broad boulevards, was completely empty save for troops lining the road. Still, when the U.S. embassy official on my bus urged us all to stay close to our hotel, there was some nervous laughter. The press corps may fancy itself to be tough, but no one needed persuading to stay within well defined security zones.

While the White House has touted its growing strategic partnership with India on this trip, it is still very much wedded to Pakistan. The country remains on the front line of terror. The situation is so bad that Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have gotten into a tiff over who needs to do more to stop terror along their 1,470-mile, largely lawless frontier. Karzai said Musharraf should do more to contain the lawless tribal regions in the country’s north, while Musharraf has called for mining the border. Little wonder, then, the security situation in Islamabad, the national capital where the Bush-Musharraf summit will be held, is in a total lockdown with thousands of troops.