An off-lead story on page one in the January 25 New York Times, slugged "Jet Hijackers Are Backed by Pakistan, US Contends", touched off the present row over the US attitude to Pakistan. The daily, quoting Clinton administration officials, had reported that "the US now believes that a terrorist group supported by the Pakistani military was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet last month. A judgement that puts Pakistan at risk of being placed on Washingtons list of nations that support terrorism", a demand made by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee after the Christmas-eve hijacking.
The day the Times splashed the story, President Bill Clinton addressed a press conference, where he was asked if he knew of any Pakistani involvement. Clinton emphatically said: "No, we dont. We do not, no. I guess the simplest thing I can tell you is that we do not have evidence that the Pakistani government was in any way involved in that hijacking." White House spokesman Joe Lockhart went further: "We have no evidence that the government of Pakistan had foreknowledge of, supported or helped carry out the hijacking." Apparently, either the White House had not been briefed by the State Department or it did not share the latters understanding on the issue. The communication gap appeared glaring. It fell on department spokesman James Rubin to do the damage-control, reconciling the contradictory views voiced publicly by the administrations two pillars.
He tried to salvage the situation by arguing that "some agencies" of the Pakistani government supported the militant groups active in Kashmir-a reference to the ISI. Rubin said a possible connection between Pakistans military and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which has been linked to the hijacking, "is a matter of extreme concern to us-this is an organisation we have declared a terrorist outfit". Along with this, he held out the threat of branding Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism if its army continued to support terrorists blamed for the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight.
But South Asia expert Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute here, felt labelling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism would not help solve the problem. However, another India watcher, Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center, felt that Pakistan automatically comes under suspicion because of its previous connections with militant groups. "Unless Pakistan takes steps against these groups and stops military activity against India on the border, there will be increased pressure here in the US to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism."
In the meantime, reports have been circulating in Washington that Gen Musharraf had refused to heed the US plea to ban the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The US showed its disapproval by dropping the country off Clintons India-Bangladesh tour beginning March 20. It is a severe snub to Pakistan, an ally of the US in the heydays of the Cold War, say observers. Pakistani ambassador to the US, Maleeha Lodhi is going all out in an attempt to include Islamabad in Clintons South Asia visit but the US is unlikely to budge from its position. However, the US has kept the option open to include Pakistan in the itinerary, if Islamabad puts its act together and meets some of the US concerns.
White House National Security Council spokesman David Leavy said the US would first have to see a "significant movement" by Pakistan in combating terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and the restoration of democracy and civilian rule in the country. He said that State Department officials visited Pakistan last month and "made clear our long-standing concerns on terrorism, proliferation, the restoration of democracy. And I think the Pakistanis are well aware of our concerns".
Indian diplomats have constantly been feeding the US with material showing Pakistani involvement in spreading terrorism in Kashmir and this appears to have had the intended effect in Washington. But this does not mean the US is going to declare Pakistan a terrorist states as suggested by India. For, that means snapping of diplomatic ties, which even India has not done so far.
India watcher James Clad, currently a professor of Asian studies at the Georgetown University, also believes that the connivance of the Pakistani military with the terrorists in the recent hijack cannot be ruled out. However, he says India should stop harping on labelling Pakistan a terrorist nation because it would be "counterproductive". Perhaps silence works better.