In Pakistan, Albright Puts Focus on Peace
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew Tuesday to this Afghan refugee camp of dusty streets and mud-brick huts less than 30 miles from the Afghan border to wave the American flag. But in stark contrast to the U.S. military focus here in the 1970s and 1980s, she visited a girls school where she urged the youngsters to achieve.
She exchanged tales with them of refugee life, hers as a Czech child fleeing the Nazis and the girls’ flight from Soviet occupation.
Albright then watched a demonstration of land mine removal by dogs and humans, part of a program to clear more than 10 million of the deadly devices that still litter the Afghan countryside.
This first visit by an American secretary of State to South Asia in 14 years reflected one of the most significant shifts in U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War’s end. Her message was that the United States is returning to the subcontinent not to influence its conflicts or to provide arms to assorted combatants but to talk peace, women’s rights, energy and the environment. Instead of offering Stinger antiaircraft missiles, as had happened during the Afghan War, the United States this time brought schoolbooks, crayons, watercolors, chalk and an atlas autographed by Albright.
The secretary of State carried a persistent message at this front-line camp of 80,000, one of 350 “refugee villages” that are still home to 1.2 million Afghans in Pakistan. She made the point in her earlier talks with Pakistani officials.
While her predecessors raged at the Soviets for their invasion of this mountainous region, she railed at the Taliban, the radical Islamic faction that controls two-thirds of strife-weary Afghanistan, for its treatment of women and children.
“We are opposed to the Taliban because of their approach to human rights, their despicable treatment of women and children and their general lack of respect for human dignity in a way that is more reminiscent of the past than the future,” she said at a morning news conference in Islamabad, the capital, with Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan.
In the afternoon here, before refugee women and girls shrouded in white burka head covers, she blasted the Taliban’s denial of education, health care and employment to females as “harsh and backward.” Her words were some of the toughest language ever used publicly by the U.S. about the Taliban.
To drive home the point, Albright announced that the U.S. will provide aid to maintain the refugee school, which operates out of tiny tents or mud-brick rooms with children packed onto straw floor mats.
In Pakistan, where Washington once spent billions of dollars in the Afghan War, the $10-million aid package this year is committed to education, literacy, nutrition and family planning. And the next U.S. Cabinet secretary due in the region is Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
At a broader level, the themes of Albright’s abbreviated swing--through Pakistan, India and as close to Afghanistan as she could get--underscored the vigorous new U.S. reengagement.
“The United States at the highest levels--the secretary of State now and the president early next year--are getting back in the South Asian game,” declared a senior U.S. official with Albright. “The Cold War is no longer defining our relations with any of the countries in the region. We want to be a part of what we see are many opportunities in South Asia. We want to engage with India, Pakistan and other countries of the region across the board.”
Trade may be the biggest incentive. India, undergoing a gradual economic liberalization, is one of the world’s 10 major emerging markets, the State Department reports. Its two-way trade with the United States in 1996 totaled $10 billion, almost double 1992 levels.
U.S. hopes that business will expand are evident in the expected visit to the region soon of Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who has called the trip his “most important of the year.”
More than 100 U.S. high-tech companies operate in the south Indian city of Bangalore alone. The latest mission by the space shuttle Columbia, scheduled to begin today, will carry the first Indian American--Kalpana Chawla, a female research scientist and micro-gravity specialist who migrated from India in the 1980s and has since worked in San Jose and Los Altos, Calif.
“This is actually one of the many examples of things we share in common,” the senior official said. “The United States and India are both high-tech societies. We both have great scientists. We’re both interested in space and research.”
Albright also will announce soon, aides said, that a new science and technology forum will be formally established between the two countries during President Clinton’s visit.
Meantime, officials noted that the United States is also Pakistan’s biggest investor, No. 1 export market and No. 2 source of imports. “Trade, not aid, is the wave of the future in the region,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of State for South Asia, in congressional testimony last month.
South Asia is also a major market for the U.S. power industry. Projects under consideration include environmentally friendly plants for India and development of energy sources in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
A fundamental shift in regional security has allowed Washington to change its goals. A sense of cooperation is beginning to take root, fostered in part by India’s “more accommodating” posture toward its smaller neighbors, Inderfurth said. A critical part of the initiative by Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, launched this year, includes talks with Pakistan to try to solve a half-century conflict over Kashmir.
But the shift is most visible on Afghanistan. Instead of sponsoring rival sides, the U.S. and Russia are now part of the “six plus two” formula for Afghanistan that brings them together with the country’s six neighbors to try to end the 18-year war.
The U.S. relationship with South Asian states, however, still faces major hurdles, as was illustrated by the attack last week that killed four U.S. oil company employees in Karachi, Pakistan. Washington and Islamabad are developing anti-terrorist cooperation.
The United States is also concerned about the fragility of the region’s political systems. “Democratic institutions in some South Asian countries are fragile and subject to many social and political stresses,” Inderfurth said in his House testimony. Indeed, due to political squabbling and scandals, the governments of Pakistan and India could fall within days after Albright leaves.