As is its wont, the American medias pronounced its judgement: President Clintons controversial visit to Pakistan has failed. This instant verdict rests on his apparent "failure" to persuade Islamabad to restore democracy and curb its arms race. Nor did its military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, give any assurance on Kashmir. The Los Angeles Times was perhaps the most charitable: Clinton left the South Asian region much as he found it.
US officials admit that the president received no assurances. "We broke no new ground on Kashmir. We heard no new assurances from the general," they said. But the story of bringing the US influence to bear on Pakistan does not end there.
Commenting on the trip, South Asia expert George Perkovich, whos also the director of the Secure World Program at the W. Alton Jones Foundation and whose Indias Nuclear Bomb has been published recently, says: "The US cant do much to affect the Pakistani decision on any issue. But it was important to tell the general that he concentrate on positive developments, spend resources on them than trying to militarily bleed India in Kashmir."
Perkovich and other South Asian experts would rather wait before reaching any conclusion on Clintons trip. "First, let the message of restraint sink in," says Teresita C. Schaffer, who directs the South Asia Programme of the Washington-based thinktank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, and has served as US ambassador to Sri Lanka. "The visit was a wonderful opportunity to put this region in the spotlight. It brought to the forefront Indo-US economic relations which could pave the way for stronger bilateral ties."
Agreeing with the viewpoint, Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Centre, says: "South Asias a complex region and were too close to the event to draw any right conclusion."
The White House, however, does not share the media pessimism. It is optimistic that good sense will ultimately prevail in Islamabad and that Clintons arguments would make Pakistan reconsider its present approach. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the Clinton-Musharraf meet as "a very high-tone exchange. It was very candid, without pretence on either side".
President Clinton outlined US concerns on democracy, on the nuclear programme, in a "strong and forceful way, not patronising or hectoring," he said. "Musharraf listened very attentively. He obviously has a strong and passionate view about the cause in Kashmir. But he expressed a recognition that ultimately he had to address the real concerns of the people of Pakistan."
Thats exactly what the US is relying on: of Pakistan appreciating the ground realities. Perkovich points to the "big lever" - the Clinton administration withholding the imf support to cash-strapped Pakistan. The US might be reluctant to wield this stick for fears that such a move could affect the common Pakistani and strengthen the hands of extremists opposed to the countrys modernisation. "It might make the situation worse. So, rather than threaten him, the US has appealed directly to Musharrafs vision of Pakistan," he says.
As a first step towards restoring democracy, Schaffer points out, Musharraf has announced elections to the local bodies. Restoring a saner political system to Pakistan and a meaningful distribution of power at the provincial level are major issues. "What is more important is how the general is going to set this process under way rather than setting a time-table," she says.
Regarding terrorism, India-Pakistan relations and non-proliferation, Schaffer says the US "would like to see what the follow-up on these would be". The US is also happy that Musharraf had acknowledged Osama bin Laden as a "serious problem", promising "significant efforts" to make Afghanistans Taliban regime see reason, but, at the same time arguing that he didnt have total control over the situation.
The problem then could be that Gen Musharraf is not as powerful as hes believed to be. The Washington Post, in an Islamabad dateline story, says the presidents stern warning to Pakistan left its military government facing a sober new reality: "The Cold War strategic alliance with the United States is over, and Pakistan must move to restore democracy and control terrorism in Kashmir or fend for itself in its mounting confrontation with India."
The daily also quotes analysts in Islamabad as saying that the choice facing Musharraf is one he may not be willing or able to make. If he cracks down on insurgent groups fighting in Indian Kashmir, he risks igniting the wrath of powerful Islamic forces inside Pakistan. If he doesnt, he risks forfeiting Western economic support and driving the nation deeper into poverty. Thats Gen Musharrafs dilemma and Washington is well aware of it. The US has to tread cautiously and that, precisely, is what Clinton did on his visit.