PAKISTANI Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto sits down today with President Bush and other US leaders to begin defining a new phase in US-Pakistani relations. Pakistan is six months into a new try at democracy, which is still a bit shaky. Soviet troops are four months gone from Afghanistan, but the mujahideen guerrillas have yet to get their military or political efforts into high gear. Pakistan continues to teeter on the edge of becoming a nuclear weapons state, which could shatter US-Pakistani ties and mark an even more serious arms race with India.
Afghanistan, and Pakistan's nuclear program, will be at the center of discussions. The near term questions are how to manage the transition in Afghanistan and how to prevent Pakistan's covert pursuit of nuclear weapons capability from forcing a cutoff in the $600 million annual US aid.
The longer-term issue is how to maintain and redefine close US-Pakistani ties as the Soviet threat in Afghanistan (which justified the ``strategic relationship'' and substantial US aid) fades from the scene and congressional concern.
This week, Washington wants to show its full support for Pakistan's return to democracy after a decade of military domination. This is Ms. Bhutto's first trip here since becoming the only female prime minister of an Islamic nation last December.
``We'd like to see the visit help provide her increased confidence to govern and to help earn her the support of a broad constituency at home,'' including the military, a senior administration official says. ``We're behind her.''
Bhutto will also be warmly welcomed on Capitol Hill. ``She's likely to take Congress and the country by storm,'' says Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, chairman of the House Pacific and Asian Affairs Subcommittee. ``People up here are willing to give Bhutto the benefit of doubt on a range of questions, including the nuclear program,'' a Senate aide says.
Bhutto hopes to show that she can reap as many political and aid benefits as did the late military strong man, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, sources agree. ``She's going to portray herself as the last best hope for democracy in the Islamic world,'' says Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan specialist at the University of Illinois. ``There are few other politicians in Pakistan that could match her in managing the US relationship.''
The administration plans to make substantive consultations, rather than aid, the centerpiece of the visit. But it is trying to win congressional support for a sale of 60 F-16 jets, which Pakistan wants, as well as about $600 million in economic and military aid to Pakistan for the third slice of a six-year, $4 billion US aid package.
Bhutto is vulnerable at home. Clear US support this week can help consolidate a viable role for her with Pakistan's military and bureaucratic establishments, says Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
``She is responsible for things without having full authority,'' says Thomas Thornton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her political coalition is fragile. She has to be very conscious of the military's primacy in certain areas. There is sectarian violence in key provinces. The economy is in bad shape. Social services are desperate for funds. And Afghanistan is unsettled, leaving almost 3 million to 4 million refugees in Pakistan.
``It's a very tough time for anyone to be prime minister of Pakistan,'' Mr. Thornton says, especially a young, Western-educated woman.
But in what most analysts here see as a sign of strength, Bhutto recently sacked Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the head of military intelligence agency. The break arose over Afghanistan policy, for which General Gul was responsible. Still, it has sharp domestic ramifications since Gul's agency helped create Bhutto's opposition under the old regime.
``Gul's removal is a symbol that the Zia era is over,'' a US official says. It opens up possibilities for Bhutto at home and on Afghanistan policy where military intelligence had favored Islamic fundamentalists among the resistance.
Recently, Gul had tried to blame Bhutto for pushing the now-lagging mujahideen offensive against the Afghan government stronghold of Jalalabad, when the idea came from his agency, US officials say.
Thinking through Afghan options will be a priority in this week's talks. The Bush administration is agreed that the mujahideen should be given more time to get its military and political act together, officials say. They counsel patience, arguing the ``fighting season'' is just getting under way.
There is, however, evident frustration with the poor coordination among guerrilla groups in the field and in the political arena. The mujahideen interim government remains narrowly based and ineffective. There are also signs that congressional support for the guerrillas is fraying at the edges.
The subterranean message from officials and congressional activists here is that if there is no progress by the time snow starts to fly late this year, US Afghan policy will be seriously reassessed.
US officials say they expect to find much common ground with Bhutto. ``She is defining the dilemma we all face in a fairly sharp way,'' a ranking US diplomat says. She would like to put a political settlement together, but she realizes neither she nor the US can force the mujahideen to deal with the communists, he says.
``We agree on the need to stay the course'' - to let the military situation play itself out and to remove the [communist Afghan leader Najibullah's] regime, the senior official says. ``But we want to talk about where we go from there'' in moving beyond a purely military approach.
Pakistan's nuclear program will come up in private. Last year, the Reagan administration had a difficult time certifying that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon, given the ongoing clandestine procurement and research. Bhutto has made reassuring statements, but some wonder if she can control the nuclear drive.
Right now, President Bush could again certify Pakistan, the senior official says. But if there is any more nuclear progress, he may not be able to do so and US aid to Pakistan would be suspended, a second official says. ``We want to be helpful,'' he says. ``But we will not violate US law. It really doesn't matter if Bhutto controls the program or not, she is prime minister.'' He and others add that the US sees the problem in the context of the rivalry with India - the solution tied to lessening those tensions.
The challenge is to chart a post-Afghanistan direction for US-Pakistan relations, Professor Thornton says. Democracy there will help, but it will not carry the relationship through a nuclear weapons test, or maintain Pakistan as third-highest US aid recipient, he says.