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Bush's fence-mending efforts fall flat

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September 28, 2006 13:33 IST
If body language were the measure of success or lack thereof, Presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan obviously won out at the tripartite peacekeeping dinner that President Bush hosted at the White House Wednesday for him and Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan.

Both leaders, ever since they landed in the United States last week to attend the United Nations General Assembly, have been engaged in a war of words, with each one blaming the other for the resurgence of the Taliban. They continued in that vein right up to Wednesday night's dinner, were stiff and distant and the frostiness was palpable during the brief Rose Garden welcoming ceremony in the White House before Bush ushered them into the Old Family Dining Room for dinner.

Although after Bush's welcoming remarks, both Musharraf and Karzai firmly shook Bush's hand, they did not shake each other's hand -- and if an embrace had been expected-- it was certainly wishful thinking.

Bush said, "These two men are personal friends of mine; they are strong leaders who have an understanding of the world in which we live; they understand that the forces of moderation are being challenged by extremists and radicals.

"We are working together to help improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan and the people in Pakistan," he said, but acknowledged, without making any reference to the disputes that each leader had been blaming each other for, "We have got a lot of challenges facing us," and, "All of us must protect our countries, but at the same time, we must work to make the world a more hopeful place."

Bush said the dinner he was hosting " a chance for us to strategise together, to talk about the need to cooperate, to make sure that people have got a hopeful future."

The White House, which had earlier indicated that at the end of the dinner, there was the possibility of a read out, had not issued one well past midnight, more than an hour-and-a-half after the talks had ended.

There was no photo-op either after the dinner, but some White House officials had reportedly told reporters on a stake-out that the mere fact that the meeting lasted over two-and-a-half hours was "a good sign," and that in the final analysis, there was a "commitment by the two leaders to continue to fight terror."

The officials said there had been " expectation to parade them before the cameras," after the dinnerĀ and that the absence of such a photo-op should not be taken as a sign that Bush's fence-mending efforts had fallen flat.

"This is just a first step," officials said, adding, "It was a constructive exchange," while downplaying the lack of any symbolic gesture like at least a hand-shake photo-op after the dinner, and noted that Bush had assured them of continued and sustained US support for their countries as they battle the extremist forces within and outside their borders and assist the US in the battle against al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban.

One issue that generated "much impassioned dialogue," the officials said, was Musharraf's agreement with the tribal leaders in North Waziristan, and noted that Musharraf had strongly defended his rationale for this accord and reiterated as he had done in his meeting with Bush last Friday and earlier when he visited with Karzai in Kabul that this was in no way an attempt to cut the Taliban some slack.

Even though Bush has indicated that he trusts Musharraf on this deal, Karzai had publicly spoken of his skepticism about this agreement and continued to maintain that Pakistan is fomenting the terrorism in Afghanistan through the Taliban for whom it provides safe havens in Pakistani territory.

Besides the three leaders, those at the dinner included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

Ironically, during his joint news conference with Karzai on Tuesday, Bush had teased that heĀ  would be checking for "body language," during Wednesday's dinner.

If the "body language" during the Rose Garden ceremony, was anything to go by, then it certainly said it all -- that the big chill between Musharraf and Karzai had hardly thawed and there continued to be no love lost between these two critical allies of Bush.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington