Bush and Musharraf: Friends Again

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Heads of state are sometimes too candid for their own good. But rarely do two of them blurt out what they're really thinking almost simultaneously, as George Bush and Pervez Musharraf did this week — and on a topic as touchy as U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against terrorism. Asked by CNN on Wednesday if he'd order U.S. military operations inside Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden if there was solid intelligence on his location, Bush said "absolutely." The next day CBS released portions of a 60 Minutes interview with Musharraf, to be aired Sunday, in which he claims that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened Pakistan's military intelligence chief that the U.S. would bomb his country "back to the Stone Age" if Musharraf didn't cooperate in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Bush's cowboy-like threat certainly played well with the conservative base that the Republicans desperately need to turn out for the congressional midterm elections less than two months away. And Musharraf, promoting his memoir to be published next week, has to placate even more dangerous political enemies at home who have tried several times to assassinate him. But both men's blunt remarks sent their diplomatic minders scrambling.

How far the U.S. military would go in chasing Bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan is a sensitive subject that American commanders would prefer not be given too much air time. Pakistan-U.S. relations are tense at the moment, particularly on the question of how deeply committed Musharraf is to rooting out al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists and capturing Bin Laden, who's believed to be hiding in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has complained that Pakistan's tolerance of extremists operating from its territory has helped them gain a stronger foothold in his own country, is furious that Musharraf recently signed a truce with pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal leaders in the North West Frontier Province. That truce calls for Pakistani troops to end their military campaign against militants in exchange for their ending attacks on Pakistani forces and cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Karzai doesn't trust the militants to live up to their part of the bargain.

The precise nature of Armitage's message to the Pakistanis in 2001 is open to question. A barrel-chested Vietnam vet who still lifts weights, Armitage — who left the State Department last year — can be intimidating in meetings. But diplomats don't as a rule threaten military action unless they've been authorized to do so, and Armitage, a seasoned envoy, insists he "never said it" because that was not his instruction from Washington. But he does admit to delivering a strong message to Musharraf's aide that Pakistan was either with the U.S. or against it in the war on terror.

Bush and Musharraf finally got back on the same talking points Friday. After a White House huddle, they emerged to tell reporters they were still joined at the hip when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And, as his military commanders prefer, Bush danced around the question of whether he'd ask Musharraf's permission to send U.S. troops into Pakistan to grab bin Laden, insisting that both leaders are still "on the hunt together." Musharraf insisted the agreement he struck with the tribal leaders is not a deal with the Taliban. "This deal is against the Taliban," he claimed. And Bush said: "I believe him."

As for his claim that Armitage threatened to bomb his country, Musharraf now says his publisher has told him to keep mum on that tidbit until his memoir hits the stores — probably the first time a foreign president has delivered a teaser for his book at a White House press conference.

Bush, however, was delighted the two of them were back on their talking points. "Good job," he told Musharraf as they walked away from the press conference. But the tensions in the relationship remain. And the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, said Thursday he plans no immediate cuts in the 20,000 American troops battling a growing Taliban threat. Nor will Friday's spin control reverse the worsening war there.