Will Cozying Up To Clinton Help Bhutto Cling To Power?

Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is attempting to play the American card. By inviting First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to visit Pakistan on Mar. 27-28 and then coming to Washington to see President Clinton during an Apr. 4-14 U.S. trip, Bhutto is trying to demonstrate to her army and fractious compatriots that she should remain in power.

But reality seems to be starkly at odds with the grand gestures. Bhutto, who comes from the province of Sind, is suffering increasingly strained relations with the Punjabi-dominated army. There is open talk that once again it's time for the military to take charge. "I am not sure if the parliamentary system is the best system of democracy for Pakistan," former Prime Minister Moeen A. Qureshi hinted darkly on Mar. 8, after meeting army commanders. Qureshi, a Punjabi, is also a former World Bank vice-president.

One reason for the discontent: Bhutto has been unable to stop the carnage in her nation's largest city, Karachi, where war-hardened Afghans, Mojahirs from former East Pakistan, and other ethnic groups engage in daily warfare. Battles between Iranian-inspired Shiites and homegrown Sunni Muslims, as well as fights for control of the heroin trade, also are costing lives each day. Two U.S. diplomats assassinated on Mar. 8 were among the latest victims.

BIG DEALS ON HOLD. A poor economic performance is fueling Bhutto's woes. The best estimate is that Pakistan's economy is growing at less than a 4% annual rate, well below the level necessary to satisfy the needs of its 120 million people.

U.S. business is caught up in the delicate dance between a wounded Bhutto and her Administration benefactors. During a high-level visit by Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary in September, 1994, U.S. and Pakistani officials trumpeted $4 billion in energy-related deals with companies such as Enron, Bechtel, and Amoco. But a constant barrage of negative headlines, combined with delays in sorting out U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. and Export-Import Bank financing, appears to have put most of the deals on hold.

As far as Washington is concerned, however, Bhutto has been doing more right than wrong. Her government in February let U.S. agents quickly extradite Ramzi Ahmad Yousef, the suspected mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing. She also is letting the Americans set up a Nuclear Explosion Monitoring Center to track underground vibrations of Pakistan's Kahuta Enrichment Plant. This is designed to reassure the U.S. that Pakistan is not developing a nuclear weapon--the major irritant in relations. Because of all these reassuring moves, the White House is loath to think Bhutto could be at risk. "There's no indication we're close to another transfer of power [to the military]," says one official.

FOREIGN JUNKETS. One of Bhutto's key goals in courting Clinton is to ease enforcement of the Pressler Amendment. That law bans the transfer mf 60 F-16 fighters, for which the Pakistanis have already paid, because of concerns about Pakistan's nukes. And Bhutto is also expected to devote much of her time in the U.S. to wooing investors. The point: Only she can deliver.

But it may be too little, too late. Nawaz Sharif, another former Punjabi Prime Minister who is mentioned as Bhutto's most likely successor, has been arguing that she is simply incompetent in curbing domestic violence. Bhutto's 24 foreign junkets in 15 months reinforce the image of a leader spending more time abroad than at home. There is little love lost between her and the Punjabi generals, who hanged her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. For this embattled Bhutto, playing the American angle may be her last best shot.

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