Seeking to bolster America's main ally in the "war on terror", President George Bush made his first visit to Pakistan under intense security yesterday. But Pakistani discomfort was visible at the new strategic alliance the US is seeking with India, its historic rival.
In an effort to prevent mass protests against Mr Bush's visit, the Pakistan authorities went so far as to place the former cricket star, Imran Khan, who is now a political opposition leader and was planning to lead a protest march, under house arrest.
Pakistani protesters stand on the poster of U.S. President George Bush during a rally to condemn Bush's visit to Pakistan, Saturday, Mar 4, 2006 in Lahore, Pakistan. Police detained former cricket star Imran Khan at his Islamabad home and arrested dozens of supporters from his opposition party to block a rally against U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Pakistan, police and witnesses said. (AP Photo)
But the President was due to spend barely 24 hours in Pakistan, after a visit to India that was nearly three times as long. There was no televised address to the nation, as there had been in India, and Mr Bush came with no offer to match the civilian nuclear technology sharing deal agreed with India last week - a deal seen in the region as acceptance of the country as a member of the "nuclear club".
Instead, there was a press conference at which Mr Bush said bluntly that part of the reason for his trip was to ensure that President Pervez Musharraf remained committed to the "war on terror".
"Part of my mission today was to determine whether or not the President is as committed as he has been in the past to bringing these terrorists to justice," said Mr Bush, adding almost as an afterthought: "And he is." Mr Musharraf was at pains to stress his country's alliance with the US, repeating the phrase "strategic partnership" several times. "We have today laid the foundations of a very firm, very strong and long-term relationship between the US and Pakistan," he said.
This was a leader trying to reinforce a carefully nurtured, special relationship with the US that he sees slipping away to his rival India. It is a far cry from 2003, when President Bush designated Pakistan a "major non-Nato ally" for its part in the "war on terror".
Pakistan is not about to lose the US as an ally, or even see any real lessening of American support - it remains far too vital to the "war on terror". But Pakistan is extraordinarily sensitive to any disparity with India, and there is no doubt that last week India was offered far more.
Analysts say Mr Bush is diverting US attention towards the emerging economic threat of China, and Pakistan is paying the price. The White House sees India's fast-growing economy as a counterweight to China.
The US says it cannot offer Pakistan a nuclear deal like the one it has agreed with India, under which America will supply India with nuclear fuel and share civilian technology, because of the proliferation scandal in which Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, sold nuclear weapons technology around the world.
President Bush's visit was largely confined to the presidential palace in Islamabad, and the heavily fortified US embassy, where he spent the night. There have been four assassination attempts against Mr Musharraf, and just two days ago an American diplomat was killed in a suicide bombing at the US consulate in Karachi.
Instead of visiting the site of last year's earthquake, Mr Bush was shown a film about it inside the palace. Pakistani schoolchildren were bussed into the palace to stage a class for the first lady, Laura Bush.
President Musharraf and the Pakistan establishment may be friendly to the US, but on the streets anti-American sentiment is intense. Mr Bush was visiting just weeks after a US airstrike on a Pakistan village - intended to assassinate the deputy al-Qa'ida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri - killed 14 civilians, including several children. There have also been demonstrations against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed that have turned anti-American.
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