WASHINGTON – With the United States and Pakistan united in a war against terrorism, the suggestion Friday that the United States once threatened to bomb the Pakistanis “back to the Stone Age” landed like a diplomatic bombshell.
Acting swiftly to defuse concern over any such threat, the White House dismissed it as a misunderstanding, the former deputy secretary of state who allegedly issued the threat denied ever using such incendiary words, and President Bush attempted to smooth it over with a joke.
Yet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who made the alleged U.S. threat public in a television interview airing this weekend, refused to confirm or deny the claim during a news conference with Bush on Friday. Musharraf cited his vow of silence to an American book publisher that plans to release his memoirs Monday.
“I am launching my book on the 25th and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day,” Musharraf said to laughter in the East Room of the White House.
“In other words,” Bush interjected, ‘Buy the book,’ is what he’s saying.” And afterward, as the two stood shaking hands for photographers, Bush repeated his advice: “Buy the book.”
The controversy stems from an alleged threat that may or may not be discussed in Musharraf’s memoir.
“60 Minutes,” the CBS weekly newsmagazine, will air an interview with Musharraf on Sunday as part of the publisher’s book promotion. In that interview, according to CBS, Musharraf recounts what his intelligence director told him of a conversation with Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, ‘Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,’ ” Musharraf told CBS.
Armitage has acknowledged delivering a strong message to Pakistan – but not that strong.
“There was no military threat, and I was not authorized to do so,” Armitage told the Associated Press. “It did not happen.”
The White House maintained that the administration was delivering a “you’re with us or you’re against us” message to Pakistan, which had supported the Taliban before Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the fundamentalist regime and hunt down the al-Qaida leaders it was harboring.
“U.S. policy was not to issue bombing threats,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “U.S. policy was to say to President Musharraf, ‘You need to make a choice.’ “
Bush maintained that he hadn’t heard of the alleged Armitage threat until Friday.
“The first I heard of this was when I read it in the newspaper today,” Bush said. “You know, I was – I guess I was taken aback by the harshness of the words.”
Musharraf has been a reliable partner, Bush maintained. “All I can tell you is that, shortly after 9/11, Secretary Colin Powell came in and said, ‘President Musharraf understands the stakes and he wants to join and help root out an enemy that has come and killed 3,000 of our citizens,’ ” Bush said.