WASHINGTON — Cultivating a crucial Muslim ally, President Bush on Saturday promised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he would give priority in his second term to working to achieve a Palestinian state.
Bush defended the visiting Musharraf, who had been faulted by some for uneven cooperation in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, as a "courageous leader" who had risked assassination for his crackdown on the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
A senior administration official, meanwhile, downplayed U.S. frustration over the South Asian nation's refusal to allow Americans to interrogate Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan about his nuclear proliferation activities.
The White House also did not publicly mention the failure of Musharraf and the U.S. to catch Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, nor did it chide the Pakistani president for his decision to keep his post as army chief, a move widely criticized as undermining democracy in Pakistan.
Bush, sitting beside Musharraf in the Oval Office after their 55-minute meeting, emphasized his commitment to help foster the creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel. Muslim leaders, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have said progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to defusing the anger that helps fuel Islamic extremism.
Bush called for "a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free: one that's got an independent judiciary; one that's got a civil society; one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists; one that allows for dissent; one in which people can vote, and President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective."
Critics noted that most of those criteria were not met in Pakistan.
Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, purged the Supreme Court, arbitrarily amended the constitution and has never stood for election in a contested campaign, said Husain Haqqani, a former advisor to Pakistani prime ministers who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"As long as a country in the Muslim world is willing to be an American friend, lapses in freedom or democracy will not be judged very harshly by the American administration," Haqqani said. "You can have a make-believe parliament, you can have a show election ... and you can still get a passing grade, which is what President Bush seems to be giving Gen. Musharraf."
Bush praised Pakistan's recent campaign to rout Al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have been hiding in the remote areas of southern Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
"His army has been incredibly active and very brave in southern Waziristan, flushing out an enemy that had thought they had found safe haven," Bush said.
Musharraf told Bush that the Pakistani army had smashed the communications and logistics hub of Al Qaeda and other extremist elements in South Waziristan and cut off their financing, the senior administration official said.
Although hundreds of Pakistani troops have begun pulling out of the region, Musharraf promised Bush that his forces would move next to northern Waziristan to try to capture or kill militants who may have fled there from the south.
The traditionally independent tribal area has been roiling over the unprecedented incursion by the Pakistani army, which claims to have routed about 600 foreign Al Qaeda fighters as well as some Taliban militants.
Human rights activists charge that the army's brutal tactics have fomented a rebellion in South Waziristan.
A former Bush administration official with expertise on Pakistan said the Waziristan campaign has resulted in the arrest or death of low- and mid-level Al Qaeda fighters and ex-Taliban forces.
"The senior layer of the Taliban leadership, Mullah Omar and all the people who have surrounded him, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no appetite in Pakistan to go after them," said Ashley J. Tellis, a former State Department and National Security Council official.
Musharraf said the main purpose of his visit was to congratulate Bush on his reelection, but the two allies also discussed trade, Pakistan's relations with India and Afghanistan, and the Middle East.
Pakistan is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, receiving $701 million in bilateral aid for the fiscal year that began in October, and Musharraf did not make a request for additional assistance.
"He wasn't here with a shopping list," the senior administration official said.
Pakistan is negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal to purchase weapons from the United States, but so far it has been unsuccessful in its long-standing attempt to purchase F-16 fighter jets from Washington. The White House said Saturday that it had "nothing to announce" on such a sale.