DAWN - Features; March 8, 2006

Published March 8, 2006

Covering the Bush visit

By Qudssia Akhlaque


ISLAMABAD: US President George W. Bush’s 26-hour visit to Pakistan was marked by a thick veil of secrecy and security. Throughout his stay a tense calm prevailed in the capital with the country’s entire security apparatus, civilian and military, mobilised in top gear. Added to this was the battalion of American security personnel that created their own sophisticated security web at all sensitive points from Chaklala airbase to the Aiwan-i-Sadr to the US embassy.

For the Pakistani media it was a long wait for Bush’s arrival at Chaklala that looked more like a US military base with Americans all over the place. Their large presence made Pakistani citizens feel like aliens. We were even frisked for security clearance by Americans in the open air. Also, one saw a shocking display of what one had hitherto heard of branded as American arrogance and insolence. Chewing-gum-chomping US security men barged in and out of the arrival lounge, as if walking into their private workspace. Even the daunting American sniffer dogs, with high-ranking titles like Sergeant and Major, specially flown in from Washington, felt quite at home. The usually all-pervasive Pakistani military men at the airbase were pushed into the backseat by the US security team headed by a highly-charged man called Mark.

Terse exchanges were also witnessed between the US security head and Pakistani military officers present there. On seeing a 35-member Pakistani media team arrive in a coaster at the airbase, four hours ahead of Bush’s arrival, Mark told the ISPR officer accompanying them: “I don’t need this bunch of people.” It was only after a little argument that the team was ‘allowed’ in.

Later, he was furious because apparently at the main gate he had been held back by some Pakistani guard. Getting down from his car in a huff he said in a raised and threatening tone: “This is bullshit, I’ll talk to the general.” Probably his reference was to ISPR chief Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan.

The ISPR officers on duty were visibly irked by the high-handed American attitude and one of them had a showdown with Mark earlier in the day and had told him not to dictate terms but that had no effect.

Amid all the security salsa with hi-tech American gadgetry, a swanky BMW outside the airbase terminal suddenly alarmed the American secret service agents when it started billowing smoke. The BMW was part of the elaborate US president’s Washington-imported cavalcade that had just lined up in the parking lot. It later transpired that the car radiator had heated up.

President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush commuted in Cobra and Black Hawk gunship helicopters during their brief stay in the capital. Land and aerial security cover were provided by heavily-armed vehicles and choppers that also included Chinooks.

US secret service men and women were visible at entry points and on rooftops during the Musharraf-Bush summit at the Aiwan-i-Sadr. They looked rather suspiciously at every person and vehicle entering the premises. Helicopters hovered above the presidency while Mr Bush was there.

Even as the two leaders emerged from their summit meeting and walked towards the majestic courtyard of the Aiwan-i-Sadr, there was a feeling perhaps their body language did not emanate the kind of cordiality witnessed at their two earlier summit meetings, at the White House in February 2002 and at Camp David in June 2003. As expected the questions from the American media were on war on terror and democracy while those from the Pakistani media focussed Kashmir, civilian nuclear technology and beef in the strategic relations.

Even in the seating arrangement there was a clear division, with the American media on one side and the Pakistani media on the other. Both in front of their respective leaders and both well controlled.

There was a telling statement by a senior American journalist who covers the White House and was in the media team accompanying the US president: “There is no such thing as independent media in the US any more, particularly after 9/11. It is now all corporate driven and any one who challenges the US administration’s national security policies, his or her patriotism is challenged by the White House.” An interesting observation made by him was that the White House had tried to project Mr Bush’s visit to Pakistan as an assurance to Americans of his resolve to fight terrorism, that as commander-in-chief of America he was braving the high-risk ‘terrorist zones’ so he could engage with leaders there to strengthen US national security. The subtext of Mr Bush’s remarks at the press stakeout made that amply clear.

Yet another intriguing comment by this candid journalist was that the US media was being fed by some members of the Bush administration that if free and fair elections were held in Pakistan, there would be a danger of fundamentalists taking over the reins of power. His hunch was that this was perhaps an attempt by the White House to justify the Bush-Musharraf relationship.

All took a sigh of relief when Air Force One flew off with Mr Bush and his delegation late on Saturday night at around 11pm. Life was finally back to normal.



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