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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 March 2006, 11:39 GMT
Troubled Pakistan hopes for Bush bonus

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

President Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf has much to gain from US backing
US President George W Bush could hardly have chosen a more turbulent time to visit his staunchest ally in the South Asian region.

He is only the fourth US leader to visit Pakistan, and President Pervez Musharraf has been in office to receive two of them.

But Mr Bush's partner in the four-year-old "war on terror" is embattled on several fronts.

The entire political opposition is up in arms, refusing to participate in the state banquet planned for Mr Bush on 4 March.

Not only that, but opposition leaders seem determined to turn the anti-cartoon protests into some kind of a public movement against General Musharraf.

'Relentless pressure'

There is seething anger in large parts of Pakistan's northern province of NWFP over the ongoing military operation against foreign and local militants in the tribal belt along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

He must be hoping that Mr Bush chooses his words carefully when he raises the issue of tackling extremism

There is relentless pressure from across the border as well, with the Afghan government openly accusing Pakistan of harbouring insurgents in its border areas.

Even Gen Musharraf's repeated claim that Pakistan had broken al-Qaeda's back was violently challenged as a US diplomat was killed in a highly organised bomb attack in Karachi a day before Mr Bush's arrival.

To top it all off, US officials said in unambiguous terms that there was no possibility of the US extending civil nuclear co-operation to Pakistan to match a similar deal signed with India.

The backdrop has led many analysts to wonder what Pakistan - and Gen Musharraf in particular - hopes to gain from this visit.

Gen Musharraf would no doubt like something more than the expected pat on the back from his US counterpart.

'Cash injection'

Some of his expectations were voiced in a recent interview with the BBC in which he urged Mr Bush to throw his weight behind the faltering peace process over Kashmir.

Pakistani soldiers on patrol
Clashes between troops and militants have sparked domestic opposition
"I expect... his weight, his voice, pressurising all three groups - me, the Indians and Kashmiris - to resolve the dispute," he told the BBC.

Similarly, he must be hoping that Mr Bush chooses his words carefully when he raises the issue of tackling extremism in Pakistan's tribal belt.

But leading defence analyst Hasan Askar Rizvi says that while these political issues are no doubt important, the real benefits Pakistan has reaped from its alliance with the US are on the economic front.

Financial analysts say more than 75% of the money fuelling the current unprecedented bull run in Pakistani stock markets is from US investors.

In the run up to Mr Bush's visit, Pakistani papers were full of columns wondering if the visit could mean a massive cash injection in the Pakistan economy.

How likely, then, that Mr Bush will live up to these expectations?

US backing

Barring Kashmir, where America's new strategic partnership with India is likely to make Mr Bush tread very carefully, analysts agree that Gen Musharraf may get pretty much what he is hoping for.

According to Mr Rizvi, the US may be keen to demonstrate that its policies are geared towards helping the common Pakistani and not just propping up the military.

This could well mean a cash injection into social sectors such as health and education to give some concrete meaning to Mr Bush's visit.

This, of course, is not to say that a mere pat on the back will not be deemed sufficient by the Pakistani ruler.

The opposition's decision to stay away from Saturday's state banquet was based on Mr Bush's recent remarks that he agreed with Gen Musharraf's vision for democracy.

An opposition rally in Peshawar
The importance of the US leadership's goodwill for Pakistani politicians can hardly be overstated

That involves a continuing of the dominant role of the army in which Gen Musharraf holds onto his military role as head of the army.

A declaration of continued US support for his policies could go a long way in helping Gen Musharraf deal with a resurgent opposition.

Mr Bush is to remain in office till 2008, a year after Gen Musharraf is required to seek a fresh vote from the parliament.

The importance of the US leadership's goodwill for Pakistani politicians can hardly be overstated - the latest evidence being the opposition's decision not to hold any demonstrations on 4 March, the day he spends in Pakistan.

In fact, even as they stay away from the state banquet in Mr Bush's honour, many among the opposition will be hoping that he understands their political compulsions in doing so.



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