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The New York rendezvous
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 10 - 2004

The first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of India and Pakistan in New York brought the two men, and the two rival South Asian nuclear powers, closer, writes Iffat Idris from Islamabad
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had a busy week. In New York in front of the United Nations General Assembly, Musharraf stole the limelight. The Pakistani leader's significance stems from his country's participation in the war on terror, and from the peace process currently underway between India and Pakistan.
Travelling to America to speak at the UN General Assembly, President Musharraf's trip started with a breakfast meeting with United States President George W Bush. The main item on the agenda was the war on terror.
Pakistan has been one of the frontline states in that war, and since March has launched a big offensive against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants hiding in its northern tribal belt.
President Bush praised Pakistan for its support and, in the joint statement issued after their meeting, "emphasised the long-term US commitment to Pakistan and to the region". This was a reference to Pakistani fears that, as in the past, Washington will dump Islamabad as soon as its interests have been served.
In private, the Americans must also have urged Musharraf to keep up the pressure in the tribal belt. Bush would like nothing more than to be able to show a captured Osam Bin Laden before the US presidential elections in November. He is dependent on Pakistan's cooperation to make that happen.
The war on terror is something that the two governments see eye to eye on, but there are other less "comfortable" issues between them. The first is the alleged illegal passing on of nuclear technology by the disgraced Pakistani scientist Dr A Q Khan. Many suspect the Pakistani government was involved, but for now it suits Washington to believe the official Pakistani line that the scientist acted alone. Nuclear proliferation was not mentioned in the joint statement.
The second issue is Pakistan's progress on the path to a fully democratic government. The controversy raging in Pakistan these days is over the president's likely decision to keep his military uniform. Musharraf is both president and chief of army staff: in a deal with opposition politicians he had promised to take off the uniform by the end of this year. But recent statements by the Pakistani president and his supporters indicate that he has changed his mind.
In their joint statement, Musharraf reiterated his commitment to democracy while Bush merely expressed support for Musharraf's policy of "enlightened moderation". Many analysts see US silence over the democracy issue as motivated by its need for Pakistani support in the war on terror. Critics question whether Washington will remain silent once it no longer needs Pakistan?
The next big event on the Pakistani leader's agenda was the address at the United Nations. President Musharraf began with an assessment of the crises facing the international community and particularly the Muslim world. He dwelt in some detail on the Israel-Palestine conflict and on Iraq. About the former, he reiterated Pakistani recognition of Israel's right to exist but said the same right should be extended to the Palestinians.
Returning to a theme he has raised in previous speeches, he urged the need to address root causes and warned of an "iron curtain" coming down between Islam and the West. On the question of Iraq, the president did not -- as some had suspected -- commit Pakistani troops for peace-keeping there. But his caveat that at an opportune time the Muslim world could play a constructive role in Iraq, left the door open for future deployment.
What most people were waiting for was what the president had to say about India and the composite dialogue underway between the two countries. Reflecting the current warm relations between India and Pakistan, Musharraf pointedly steered clear of any attacks on India's human rights record in Kashmir. This was a marked departure from past practice, where Indian denial of the Kashmiris' right of self-determination has been a constant theme. Instead, Musharraf expressed satisfaction over the progress made to date and reiterated Pakistan's commitment to the process: "It has always been my conviction that Pakistan and India can resolve all differences including Kashmir through sincere dialogue. I hope India shows the same flexibility, boldness that Pakistan will demonstrate."
On Thursday it was the Pakistani delegation's turn to listen intently to what Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to say in his address to the UN General Assembly. They were not disappointed. Premier Singh also departed from past Indian practise by making no reference to "cross-border terrorism". He too expressed support and commitment to the peace process: "I reaffirm our determination to carry forward this dialogue to a purposeful and mutually acceptable solution." Rather than using the UN platform to berate Pakistan, the Indian leader used it to call for "democratisaton" of the UN by giving India a permanent place on the UN Security Council.
The climax of Musharraf's US trip came on Friday with the first ever meeting between the two leaders -- President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh. That meeting, too, went extremely well. The Pakistani leader presented his Indian counterpart with a photo album of his childhood friends in the village in Punjab where he grew up, and a painting of that ancestral village. "You have won over my heart" was Singh's response on receiving the gifts. Seeing the two men side by side, one could not help reflecting on the irony that Pakistan's president was actually born in India while the Indian prime minister was born in what later became Pakistan: both migrated at Partition.
The joint statement issued after the meeting was very positive. Written in the language of accommodation rather than confrontation, it recognised Kashmir as an issue and agreed to explore all possible options for peaceful settlement. Speaking to journalists, the two leaders' body language and banter reflected their desire to get on and make progress. The hope is that by the next time they meet -- at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Heads of State Summit in January -- they will be able to report both commitment and progress on the path to peace.


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