Critical Mission to South Asia

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Byline: Richard Lugar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to India and Pakistan this week - just two months after her confirmation - demonstrates the importance the new Bush team attaches to South Asia. India's growing global role as a multiethnic, multireligious democracy with a rapidly expanding economy makes partnering with that country a natural step in fortifying democratic values after September 11, 2001.

Equally important, if not more challenging, is building ties with Pakistan, a strategic Islamic country with a critical role in the fight against global terrorism. Last year's arrests in Pakistan of scores of al Qaeda operatives prevented major terrorist acts worldwide and signaled extremists they will no longer find easy sanctuary there. Likewise, Pakistan's military campaign against militants in former Afghan border no-go areas has helped to advance the global war on terror.

Now, more than ever, U.S. policymakers must maintain their focus on Pakistan to ensure the tide is fully turned against extremist forces. At the same time, we must recognize President Pervez Musharraf faces unusual difficulties in his efforts to combat Islamic extremism, modernize the country, and ease tensions with India.

On the last point, high-level U.S. attention to South Asia over the last few years has helped India and Pakistan make progress over the Kashmir region, over which they have fought two wars and went to the brink twice since their nuclear tests in 1998.

The India-Pakistan dialogue launched in January 2004 and carried forward by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr. Musharraf demonstrates both sides' interest in normalizing relations. Miss Rice should encourage this trend.

Striking the right balance in our South Asia policy is a delicate task, especially with Pakistan. Deep anti-Americanism among Pakistanis leaves Mr. Musharraf vulnerable to criticism he cooperates too closely with the U.S. against Pakistani interests, while critics accuse the Bush administration of hypocrisy for backing a military government while preaching democracy. Asking Mr. Musharraf, the target of two assassination attempts, to take on too many vested interests at once could, some fear, threaten his regime.

While there is no simple way to make sure Pakistan navigates the path to reform and modernization, the U.S. can encourage the process in ways that lessen the chances for instability, attack terrorism at its roots, and demonstrate our support for a timely return to democracy:

(1) We should ensure our multibillion-dollar aid program targets more assistance to the grass roots of and touch more of the Pakistani people. …