WASHINGTON - Continuing with his campaign to court allies in the war on terrorism, President Bush gave Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a $3 billion thank you but stopped short of giving him 28 F-16 fighter jets that Pakistan bought 13 years ago.
When the awkward question about the planes was raised at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Bush chuckled, stumped for a moment about how to reply.
“You're never going to escape this issue,” Mr. Musharraf said.
“I know,” Mr. Bush said. He quickly answered that the F-16s were not in the aid package but that Mr. Musharraf had certainly not neglected to bring up the subject with passion.
Eager to end the grilling, Mr. Bush said, “Let's go get our wives.”
Mr. Musharraf agreed.
The United States has had a tenuous relationship with Pakistan since that country began testing nuclear explosives as part of an arms race with its archrival, India. The United States also fears that Pakistan has helped North Korea with its nuclear program.
But U.S. ties with Pakistan have warmed since Mr. Musharraf allowed U.S. troops to use his country as a staging ground for the war on terror in neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials once considered Mr. Musharraf a foe of democracy when he seized control of Pakistan in a coup and suspended democracy. But he is now, in Mr. Bush's words, “a courageous leader and a friend of the United States.”
“America has a strong relationship with Pakistan, and we have benefited from the industry and the talents of Pakistani Americans,” Mr. Bush said. “Today our two nations are working together closely on common challenges.”
After meeting with Mr. Musharraf and his wife at Camp David, the White House retreat in Maryland, Mr. Bush said that Pakistan has helped in the capture of 500 al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. In gratitude, Mr. Bush said he and Mr. Musharraf would sign a new trade and investment agreement. The President said he hopes there is a free trade agreement with Pakistan.
He said the United States had canceled the $1 billion Pakistan owed the United States and that he would ask Congress for $3 billion over five years in aid for Pakistan that will be used for economic assistance and military equipment. But he said he promised India he would not approve giving Pakistan the F-16s and yesterday he stuck by that promise.
“I am particularly honored and touched by his special gesture in arranging our meeting in Camp David,” he said. “This special gesture by the President to come to Camp David and invite me here on a Tuesday is certainly a typical example of his warmth and cordiality toward me as a person and toward Pakistan.”
Mr. Musharraf and many U.S. officials believe that bin Laden is hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan or traveling back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The only way the terrorist leader will be captured, officials say, is with the help of Pakistani authorities who sometimes must endure the hostilities of radicals when cooperating with the United States.
But the United States thinks Pakistan could be more aggressive in going after Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists.
It wasn't until Monday, the day before Mr. Musharraf's visit, that Pakistani officials said they had arrested five members of a militant group blamed for killing Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and killed last year.
Mr. Bush said yesterday that it could take years before bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are captured, but he maintained that they will be caught.
“It's just a matter of time,'' he said in response to a reporter's question.
Mr. Bush has been inviting allies of the war on terror and the war in Iraq to the White House, to Camp David, and to his ranch in Texas to thank them and to solidify relationships for possible future actions.