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The President's Trip to South Asia

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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 7, 2000


The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:40 P.M. EST

MR. STOCKWELL: Good afternoon. Today's special topic brief will be on the President's upcoming trip to South Asia, and with me are two senior administration officials on BACKGROUND.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As you know, the President has decided that he will stop in Pakistan at the conclusion of his South Asia trip later this month. He will got to Pakistan because it is important to a number of key United States national interests that he engage with Pakistan at this time.

Let me briefly outline the important national interests we have at stake in Pakistan today. These include avoiding the threat of a conflict in South Asia; promoting the return of democracy to Pakistan; fighting terrorism; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and creating an environment of regional peace and security.

The President will go to Pakistan because the Pakistani nation is a friend, not because he approves of or acquiesces in the government of General Pervez Musharraf. He is not going to mediate the Kashmir dispute. Rather he will go to continue his consistent efforts to advance the interests I outlined above, as he has over the last seven years and as he did in his meeting with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Blair House last 4th of July. The understanding that he reached with Sharif that day played a key role in ending a tense conflict in Kargil.

We cannot predict when the next flare-up might occur in this region, but tensions are higher there now than at any time since the last Indian-Pakistani war in 1971. We are concerned that, through misunderstandings or gradual escalation, the two countries could once again find themselves in conflict. The President has a responsibility to our nation and to the world to do what he can to avoid such a dangerous development.

The President believes that it's crucial that he carry a message of restraint and dialogue to both capitals on this trip. He also wants to assure that we have lines of communication that may be necessary and useful in a crisis -- the kind of relationship that enabled him to play the effective role he did with Nawaz Sharif last July.

Terrorism is another vital American interest at play in Pakistan and next-door in Afghanistan. The terrorists in their camps in Afghanistan, especially Usama bin-Laden, all too clearly aimed directly at America and American lives. This will be high on the President's agenda.

Democracy in Pakistan was interrupted on October 12th last year. Some have urged the President to avoid Pakistan to demonstrate our displeasure at the military coup there. In fact, that action would be welcomed by the very anti-democratic and militant elements in Pakistan that represent the long-term threat to that country's system. And it would dishearten those in Pakistan who have stood for secular, Western-oriented democracy for 50 years. We do not want to break faith with them. The President is convinced that this is the right decision that best protects the interests of the American people.

With those opening remarks, I'd be happy to take questions.

Q Are you worried at all how this might affect -- what kind of a reaction it might draw from India?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in the process of making this decision, the President has consulted widely. Among those consultations today he spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee on the phone and informed him of what he was doing. I think that the Indian people understand and the Indian government understands that we have vital interests here and that those interests are best kept protected by lines of communication.

Q What's the format of this? Is this going to be a quickee at the end of the trip? I mean, an airport stop?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, exact logistics, of course, now need to be worked out between now and the time he goes, but it will be a relatively short visit of several hours. We do not plan on staying overnight.

Q Is this going to be to Islamabad or Karachi or --


Q Will he be in the city?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're still in the process of working out the logistics. Actually, we are at the beginning of the process of working out the logistics.

Q Can you tell us if the government has made any progress on the three main area of concern to the United States -- democracy, nonproliferation and terrorism?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, those are the three areas that we have raised, with democracy and terrorism and nonproliferation. There was no checklist of actions that Pakistan needed to take for the visit to be scheduled. We did not give them, when I was there in January, a checklist, and they did not give us one either. But we have been in close consultation with them for some time, and the President has concluded that the time is right for a visit.

But let me -- in terms of what has transpired on the democracy issue and what hasn't, on the negative side, the constitution remains suspended. Provincial national assemblies remain suspended. An unknown number of politicians remain under detention without charge. As many of you know, judges were required to sign loyalty oaths a few weeks ago. And to date, there has been no comprehensive road map or time frame for a return to civilian democratic rule.

Now, on the more positive side, the press and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to operate freely. There has been a commitment to local elections this year. There have been efforts to prosecute corruption, to go after tax evasion. This is the accountability campaign that General Musharraf launched. And the trial of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to be proceeding properly, including with due process.

So the record so far is mixed. We believe it's too early to judge the record of the new government. These will clearly be the focus of the President's concerns that he'll express when he is there. We do hope to hear more from General Musharraf on these subjects, especially democracy, when he speaks to the Pakistani people on March 23rd, which is their national day, and will be two days before the President arrives.

Q What about terrorism?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Terrorism? We have seen certain actions taken by the governments of Pakistan, including the initial phase of the deweaponization program to try to get guns off the streets and to ban the public display. General Musharraf has announced that he intends to go to Kandahar. He has not taken that trip yet, but he intends to go there to speak to Mullah Omar, and they have said publicly that the three issues on General Musharraf's agenda in Kandahar will be what is referred to the Afghan scenario, the idea of how to bring about a settlement there in the fighting; secondly, bin-Laden; and thirdly, closing down terrorist training camps.

So we are obviously quite interested in not only General Musharraf going to Kandahar, but hopefully seeing some concrete results as a result of that visit.

Q Two general questions on the trip. One, what does the President hope to accomplish by going at this point, and secondly, you say this is the right time to go. Can't critics come back and say, well, no, by going right now you're rewarding both countries for behavior that we don't approve of?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me address that question apart. This trip is primarily a trip to India. We will be spending five days in India, we will be visiting five cities in India. When the Prime Minister and the President spoke today, they spoke mostly about the upcoming events in India and how important it is for us to turn a new page in U.S.-Indian relations. So I think that the primary focus on where we're hoping that this trip will mark a departure in U.S. policy is in the relationship with India.

I think as the senior administration official made clear from the list of where we are, we're not satisfied that what we've got in Pakistan is a resolution of our concerns. But we believe it is very, very important to maintain these channels of communication that I outlined. We made an important and significant difference last July in averting a conflict that could have become an extraordinarily serious one, and it is important to have that line of communication.

As for timing, the President doesn't go to this part of the world every month. This is the first visit by a President to India in 22 years. I believe it will be the first visit ever by a President to Bangladesh. And it will be the first visit by a President to Pakistan in, I think, 30 years?

Q In 1969 -- Richard Nixon.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Could I underscore one thing in terms of the purpose to be served here? I mean, we recognize the concerns that have been expressed about this trip perhaps conferring legitimacy on General Musharraf. The fact is that our decision to travel to Pakistan, the President's decision, is not an endorsement. But it is a statement of continuing engagement with Pakistan.

We have had a longstanding friendly relationship with Pakistan, and to avoid going there on this trip could send the wrong signal to the people of Pakistan that after many years of a close relationship, that the United States was turning its back on a friend. We did not want that message to the people of Pakistan to be perceived or heard. So this will be expressing concerns directly to the leadership in Pakistan, but also a continuing statement of engagement with Pakistan as a nation and with its people. And that's a very important part of the President's decision on why he decided to go.

Q How would you characterize the Indian President's reaction to the news?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Prime Minister and the President spent, as I said, almost the virtual entirety of their conversation talking about U.S.-Indian relations. The Prime Minister said that, of course, where the President goes is an American decision. We have, both the United States and India, concerns about the future of Pakistan. But I think the reaction was that he understood this was the President's call to make and that he wanted to focus on being a superlative host during those five days that the President is in India.

Q Will this be an in-and-out like Bangladesh is? Will he return to India after Pakistan, or will it be on the way out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It will be on the way out.

Q You addressed two of the concerns, democracy and terrorism. What about the third concern with Pakistan non-proliferation? What progress has been made on that front?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, at this point they haven't made any further promises. Foreign Minister Sattar has been attempting to develop a national consensus in Pakistan for signing the CTBT. We are very pleased, by the way, to be able to pass along that today Bangladesh ratified the CTBT, the first South Asian nation to do so. We hope the U.S. will follow its lead on ratification as soon as possible. (Laughter.) But this is a nice thing to have done before we arrive there.

But in terms of Pakistan, an effort is underway -- Foreign Minister Sattar has made the case for signature. But to date it has not taken place, and that, therefore, will continue to be one of the things that we will raise with General Musharraf and other leaders when we're there.

Q When you say that you're in the midst of making a reentrance, what do you see? You see a public speech and then some intense talks between Clinton and Musharraf? I mean, what's the point of going if he doesn't have really intense talks with this person?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There will be intense talks, but I'll defer to my colleague on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're not in a position today to lay out a schedule, but your basic point -- yes, this is about having an intense discussion with General Musharraf, and conveying to him our views and hearing his views, hearing what he thinks he can do on the concerns that we've laid out, but also making very clear the American position.

Q In which, if any, of these countries will the President speak at any length with opposition leaders?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have a complete schedule yet that I can give you of this. I know he's certainly planning on meeting with the leader of the opposition in Bangladesh. I would imagine he'll have opportunities to talk to other political parties in India.

Q In more than a social setting?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have a full schedule at this stage. We've still got 10 days to go.

Q What contacts have you had with General Musharraf in the last few days, and just to clarify, has a decision not been made about precisely where they're going to meet in Islamabad?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are only now in the process of working out the logistics of where they're going to meet. We have had contacts with General Musharraf's government for some time. As you know, Assistant Secretary Indefurth traveled there in January. Today, National Security Advisor Berger spoke with him on the phone.

Q The President will be coming from India, and presumably he'll be talking with the Indians about Kashmir. Since he'll only have a short, relatively short amount of time with Musharraf, what will be on top of his list? Kashmir, since he'll just have come from India, and you say that they're very close at loggerheads? Or will it just be a sort of a broad sweep of everything?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we are developing our recommended points now. I don't think that we want to list priorities here. I think the President, he obviously knows the concerns that we have been expressing to the government of Pakistan, and we have led with democracy, and then terrorism and nonproliferation.

Clearly, regional stability -- I think the comments that the other senior administration official made in the written statement underscore our concerns about certain directions, trends in the region. These are of concern. We think that tensions are high, and there is no dialogue. And we hope that there would be some opportunity to encourage some movement toward dialogue.

I think the President will obviously tailor his approach in Pakistan to reflect his discussions with Indian leaders. I think we share with India many of the concerns that we've mentioned. So this is still unfolding, and we don't have a game plan written out at this stage. We know the concerns. We think even in a limited amount of time, having the President of the United States deliver a message at the highest level, we hope will have impact over the long term.

But again, to restate something that was said earlier, the decision to go there, to Pakistan, is because the President believes this is in U.S. national interests for the long run, and not to have gone there would possibly have set that back.

Q What does the General's attitude seem to be toward the terrorists, or suspected terrorists, who are suspected of having some association with Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: General Musharraf recognizes that terrorism is a problem in South Asia. He has no dispute about that at all. He certainly recognizes our concerns about bin Laden, and I think that his decision to travel to Kandahar is an expression of his own personal desire to address those concerns directly with Mullah Omar. As many of you know, Mullah Omar does not travel. If one wants to see him, one goes to Kandahar to have those meetings. And we think that it is something that we support, in terms of General Musharraf going there.

He recognizes that there is a spillover effect in Pakistan of what has occurred for the last 20 years in Afghanistan; that the Mujahadeen, the Jihad culture, Kalashnikov culture is spilling over into Pakistan; that there are a number of organizations that are pursuing Jihad, including in Kashmir. There are numbers of guns on the street; that's why he has announced this deweaponization program, to take these guns back or at least get them out of public display. So he's concerned about the problem.

And we have made it clear to him that this problem, in our view, places Pakistan itself at risk, and that it is terribly important -- we have had this discussion with Prime Minister Sharif, so this is a continuation with General Musharraf. They need to get some control over these organizations. And we believe the first place to start is with one organization, the HUM, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.

So this is a very tough problem. It will not be solved overnight, but we believe that some steps can be taken soon to address it.

Q The President is not going to negotiate the Kasmir issue, but will he be offering some further good offices of the United States, as facilitator and whatever way you want to describe it -- in any sort of formal role there? Not himself, but offering up someone else?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not see us taking on some kind of formal role as a mediator or a negotiator between the two parties. As the President has said on several occasions, mediation is something that can only happen when both parties have asked you to, and I do not see us getting into that on this occasion.

MR. STOCKWELL: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

END 4:00 P.M. EST


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