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Outrage grows over US envoys’ visit to Pakistan as anti-Musharraf government takes power

27 March 2008

ISLAMABAD – Outrage intensified in Pakistan on Thursday over the timing of a visit by two senior American envoys who landed even before foes of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf could name a new Cabinet.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher began meetings in Islamabad just as newly elected Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was taking his oath of office on Tuesday.
Gilani now leads Pakistan’s first autonomous civilian government in nearly a decade _ one that has pledged to slash Musharraf’s powers and review his American-backed counterterrorism policies.

Washington is scrambling to build bridges with the new leaders after loyalists of its longtime ally Musharraf were trounced in parliamentary elections last month.
The envoys’ visit came amid increased U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida suspects could be hiding. On Thursday, a U.S. newspaper quoted anonymous officials in Washington as saying the stepped-up attacks are partly because of American anxiety that Pakistan’s new leaders may scale back military operations in the area.
The U.S. wants to inflict maximum damage on militant networks before Musharraf’s powers are diminished under the new government, The Washington Post reported.

Such strikes have killed at least 25 people this month, and anger over civilian casualties has grown.

Negroponte and Boucher travelled Wednesday to the lawless northwest border area where the airstrikes have hit, visiting U.S.-funded border guards and as well as a mountaintop paramilitary base at the Khyber Pass, the U.S. Embassy said.

On Thursday, they travelled to the southern city of Karachi to meet with provincial officials and the American business community there, the embassy said.
Many Pakistanis believe their trip was ill-timed and betrayed U.S. meddling in domestic politics.

In an editorial Thursday, the newspaper Dawn said the envoys came to Pakistan “in indecent haste.” The visit was “not in keeping with diplomatic propriety,” it read.
“The Americans would do well to give space to the new government to draw up its policy. So far Washington’s close and overt involvement in the war on Pakistan’s soil has only fueled anti-American sentiments,” it said.

The newspaper News urged American officials to “restrain themselves in further meddling in Pakistan’s affairs.”

Musharraf’s government endangered Pakistan by fighting for “American interests,” an editorial in the Urdu-language newspaper Nawa-e-Waqt said. “Washington is worried about saving the rule of its ally.”

With Musharraf’s clout diminishing rapidly, Western nations are seeking reassurance that the new government will keep the pressure on extremist groups using Pakistan’s wild border area as a springboard for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.

Local TV channels said the envoys met Wednesday with commanders of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that Washington plans to train and equip to fight militants, and also with tribal leaders.

“We have to fight terrorism,” Gilani later told the American diplomats at his home in Islamabad. “We will confront it with complete determination.”

But “the world community has to do more in order to develop a collective approach” to the problem, Gilani said, stressing the need for economic development to help tackle extremism. He repeatedly addressed Negroponte as “your excellency.”

Partners in the new government have said they would negotiate with some militant groups _ an approach that has drawn criticism from Washington, which has provided about US$10 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001.

The deal to bring American trainers in counterinsurgency techniques to the border region was brokered by Musharraf, whose disavowal of the Taliban and support for the U.S. in the days after the Sept. 11  attacks in the United States was considered critical in Washington.

But after routing the president’s allies in 18 February polls, the parties of two former prime ministers – Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in a December suicide attack – have taken control.

They have already announced parliament will review the current counterterrorism strategy.

“The locus of authority has changed in Pakistan and they (the Americans) have to look toward new political forces,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, who teaches political science at the University of Management Sciences in Lahore.

Rais added that Negroponte and Boucher’s visit was “not at the appropriate time.” They should have waited until after the new government was formed, he said. The new Cabinet lineup is not expected to be announced before this weekend.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said Wednesday that the U.S. envoys’ visit was not hastily scheduled, but that the timing “has generated a lot of interest.”

[Copyright AP 2008]