India and Pakistan tussle to be on Clinton's itinerary

Clinton's South Asia trip begins March 20. He may or may not stop in Pakistan.

President Clinton does not, as one insider puts it, wake up every morning thinking about South Asia.

But in India and Pakistan, the rising threats, diplomatic expulsions, and unprecedented talk of nuclear-weapons use heard daily as the White House prepares a visit here next month, suggest Indian and Pakistani officials wake up thinking of little else.

India, home to two-thirds of the region's 1.5 billion people, hopes the trip will bring legitimacy to its accession as a nuclear-weapons state, and to its power and economic preeminence in the region.

Yet now it seems the success or failure of the visit is being measured on both sides by whether Clinton visits Pakistan - India's chief nemesis, and a state whose ruler is a general who took the reins of government in a popular coup last October.

Suddenly, a state visit conceived long ago as a jaunt to an exotic land to promote US economic interests is turning into a trip with troubling overtones, with India and Pakistan, like two siblings whose jealousy and mutual hatred exceed reason, feeling betrayed by the White House.

The White House has steadily temporized on a possible "Pakistan leg" to the trip. The US does not want to quickly legitimize a regime that took power by undemocratic means. But neither does Washington want to isolate and lose leverage with a leadership that complains of domestic pressure to Islamize itself and be governed by sharia, or Islamic holy law, and clerics.

That a Pakistan visit - more likely a brief stopover - is even being considered seems impossible in New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has made a series of escalating statements suggesting Washington declare Pakistan a "terrorist state."

Mr. Vajpayee's short-lived dtente with Pakistan was crushed by last spring's small war in Kashmir, engineered by Pakistani generals who desired to make the disputed region a subject of international diplomacy and attention. This history hamstrings Vajpayee's ability to be a great peacemaker, Indians say. They blame Pakistan for harboring and abetting the hijackers who took over an Indian airliner in late December and for the cross-border attacks in Kashmir that are increasing in boldness.

But instead of agreement with New Delhi, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has, in the first change in the US position for many years, suggested that Kashmir is a subject for international mediation. India is resolutely against any outside mediation.

Such statements have greatly altered Indian optimism for a triumphal White House visit - an attitude many US officials and others, however, long warned against.

"Delhi has put an enormous stake in what will probably be a one-time visit," says one European diplomat. "They want to be able to send a message to Moscow, Beijing, and the EU saying, 'Look, we are part of the nuclear club. We hold this card.' "

But "These latest statements by Mrs. Albright are robbing the visit of its shine," says political analyst Inder Malhotra in New Delhi. "It looks like a tourist visit for the president. Not much is going to get done."

By contrast, Pakistani chief executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf is making numerous promises to deliver on US requests. General Musharraf is scheduled to travel to Kabul, Afghanistan, and has promised, for example, to work with the Taliban regime that is allowing suspected terrorist Osama Bin Laden to remain as a "guest."

For Pakistanis, the idea of a five-day Clinton visit to India "seems like eternity, if he won't come here," as one young man put it.

Both sides are presenting each other in the worst possible light - a dynamic creating bolder statements and actions. Musharraf, in a recently published interview, said he would use nuclear weapons if provoked. Vajpayee responded by rejecting the two-state partition of India in 1947 and saying "a nuclear exchange will be terrible for Pakistan." The chief minister of Indian-controlled Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, remarked casually last week that perhaps a limited war would help resolve the issue. Neither side has ever spoken so openly before.

India last week began unscheduled offensive military exercises near the international border with Pakistan. It also expelled three Pakistani diplomats. On Sunday, Pakistan ordered the expulsion of three Indian embassy officials.

"People say it is all just rhetoric and bluff," says one senior diplomat who requested anonymity. "But I think there is something more to it."

The trip will be the first by a US president to South Asia since President Jimmy Carter came in 1979. Clinton would likely have visited South Asia much sooner - influenced, some say, by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who toured the region in 1993. A string of US officials visited New Delhi in the winter and spring of 1998.

But nuclear-weapons testing by India and then Pakistan in May and June of that year put a freeze on plans, and started a round of diplomacy on nuclear proliferation that entered its 10th round last month. The White House is trying an ameliorative and optimistic appeal to all South Asians; Clinton will also visit Bangladesh.

"If tensions between India and Pakistan could be resolved ..." stated Clinton last week, "it is my opinion based on personal experience with people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh that the subcontinent could be the great success story of the next 50 years."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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