America, Pakistan Make Efforts to Salvage Ties

Pakistan agrees to explore how increased cooperation on joint operations and intelligence sharing can help both allies in the war against terrorism

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By Asher John, Foreign Correspondent
May 17, 2011|10:25 am

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – U.S. Senator John Kerry warned Pakistan on Monday that "actions not words" are needed to tackle militant sanctuaries, as the two countries tried to salvage their relationship two weeks after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The two countries also principally agreed that they would “work together” in any future action against high-value targets in Pakistan.

“Our progress in the days ahead will be measured by actions, not words,” Senator Kerry said in a televised statement after a meeting with President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani.

“Ultimately, the Pakistani people will decide what kind of country Pakistan becomes, whether it is a haven for extremists or the tolerant democracy that Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned 64 years ago,” Kerry said.

“The United States need not apologize to Pakistan for the successful raid that killed terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, but it is important that the countries find a way to mend their frayed relationship in the wake of the attack,” he said, adding that some U.S. lawmakers believed bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan might have damaged ties with the U.S. beyond repair. However, he said that the strategic relationship between Islamabad and Washington was too important to let go.

“I emphasized to our Pakistani friends – and they are friends – that many in Congress are raising tough questions about our ongoing economic assistance to the government of Pakistan because of the events as they unfolded, and because of the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan,” he said. “The make-or-break is real. There are members of Congress who are not confident that the ties can be patched back together,” he said.

Nevertheless, he emphasized: “We are strategic partners with a common enemy in terrorism and extremism. Both of our countries have sacrificed... so much that it just wouldn’t make sense to see this relationship broken or abandoned.”

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Kerry, a Democrat who is considered to be very close to the Obama administration and is also chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Congress was now scrutinizing Washington’s ties with its strategic ally. But he also said both nations had to find a way to restore trust between them, adding that U.S.-Pakistan ties were “too important to be stuck speculating.”

Kerry said his goal in visiting Pakistan was to begin a process that would leave the U.S. and Pakistan in a position where isolated episodes, no matter how profound, did not jeopardize the relationship between the two countries. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon announce plans to visit Pakistan. He announced that he and Pakistani leaders had agreed to a “series of steps” to improve relations, but did not specify what they were.

State Department Spokesman Mark Toner, in a statement, said Clinton would visit Pakistan for strategic talks, but no date had been set. He said Clinton “does plan to visit to have an in-depth strategic discussion,” adding that she would travel when she “can have those discussions in the right context and with the right preparedness.”

Kerry said he understood why Pakistanis were upset at the American raid but emphasized the extraordinary circumstances behind the mission against bin Laden. “When I spoke with the leaders of Pakistan last night and today, I explained that the extreme secrecy surrounding every aspect of the raid in Abbottabad was essential to protecting the lives of the professionals who were involved and ensuring they succeeded in capturing or killing the man responsible for so much death in so many places."

The U.S. senator noted that very few people in the White House had prior knowledge of the operation, and even General David Petraeus, commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, was informed only a few days in advance. He said that bin Laden and other foreign fighters who followed him to Pakistan from Afghanistan were the ones “who truly violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

The senator said he was pleased the Pakistani government had committed to exploring how increased cooperation on joint operations and intelligence sharing could “maximize our efforts to defeat the enemies we face.”

Kerry also announced that Pakistan had agreed to return the tail of a stealth U.S. helicopter that American commandos had to destroy during the bin Laden raid because it malfunctioned. The gesture was among a number of steps both countries had agreed to take to rebuild shattered relations, he noted.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief Leon Panetta and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman are scheduled to soon visit Pakistan to expand on the work, according to Kerry.

The vital agreement on working together to take out high value targets was reached after hectic consultations between Kerry and the top Pakistani leadership. “Kerry plainly told the Pakistani leaders, who were all under one roof to meet the influential U.S. lawmaker, that either they would have to cooperate more with the U.S. to curb terrorism or face an end to American aid,” said a senior official privy to the consultations.

Prior to the latest agreement with the U.S., Pakistan had always opposed the presence of U.S. military personnel on its soil and kept saying that no U.S. boots would be allowed on its territory. However, the agreement on working together against terrorists clearly reflects that Pakistan has softened its stance and instead of facing unilateral U.S. actions, it has opted for working with the U.S.

The meeting lasted for over two hours, at the end of which a joint statement was issued by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and the Presidency, according to Presidential Spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

The statement noted that the president, PM and the army chief had a constructive exchange of views with Senator Kerry, who said it was important “to press the reset button” in U.S.-Pakistan relations and use this opportunity to put the relations back on track.

The Pakistani leadership conveyed to Kerry that Pakistan was a victim of terrorism and that the whole nation was united in eliminating this curse from its soil. Bin Laden was an enemy of Pakistan and al-Qaida had declared war on Pakistan and launched wave after wave of suicide attacks against its people, said the statement.

The Pakistani leadership said the country was now being hit by a spate of terrorist attacks to avenge bin Laden’s killing. Pakistan-U.S. relations should go forward on the basis of mutual respect, trust and interests, it said.

The Pakistani leadership made it clear that the country’s sovereignty and national interests must be respected and accommodated by the U.S. It was agreed that both U.S. and Pakistan must recognize and respect each other’s national interests, particularly in countering terrorism and in working together for promoting reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s leadership welcomed the clear affirmation by Kerry that U.S. policy had no designs against Pakistan’s nuclear and strategic assets. Kerry stated that he was prepared to personally affirm such a guarantee. In furtherance of its existing commitment to fight terrorism, Pakistan agreed to take several immediate steps to underscore its seriousness in renewing the full cooperative effort with the U.S.

It was agreed that the two sides would intensify their engagement through official channels and that negative media messages were misplaced and detrimental to the core national interests of both U.S. and Pakistan.

Clinton also made a telephone call to Gilani during the meeting and he left to speak with her for 20 minutes. The PM mentioned the meeting with Kerry and told her that they had discussed all issues of bilateral relations.

Gilani suggested setting up a joint mechanism and strategy so that the Pakistan government could assume ownership of the war and could tell its people that Pakistan and the U.S. were fighting a common enemy. He said the U.S. operation had led to some mistrust and misunderstanding. Relations between the two countries were affected by messages from the U.S. side, and the mistrust had to be removed, he added.

Pakistan wants "due recognition and support of the international community, particularly of the U.S. at this stage rather than negative messaging and uncalled for criticism, emanating from there," Gilani said.

He underlined that Pakistan was part of the solution for ensuring lasting peace in the region and it was the need of the hour that Pakistan and U.S. should rebuild the trust and confidence between their governments and institutions."

The PM told Clinton that while Pakistan was committed and had the resolve to fight extremism and terrorism, there were some irritants in the relationship which needed to be addressed. He said Kerry would brief her in this regard after the meeting.

The PM also mentioned the resumption of a composite dialogue with India and said that it was heading in the right direction and Pakistan did not want it to be derailed in the interest of progress and prosperity of the people of the region. Clinton told Gilani about the forthcoming visit of Grossman and CIA Deputy Director Mark Morrel. This interaction, she said, would help develop better understanding.

The U.S. senator made clear that any Pakistani inquiry into how bin Laden managed to evade notice by the ISI or the military for years would be fact-checked against intelligence gathered by Navy SEALs at his compound. “We have a treasure trove of information that has been made available,” he said.

In a significant development showing a breakthrough in the stalled ties, Pakistani officials said that Washington had apologized for carrying out a drone strike in North Waziristan Agency earlier in the day without taking Islamabad into confidence.

Two U.S. drone strikes targeting a Taliban compound and a vehicle in North Waziristan killed at least nine militants. Both the attacks took place in Mir Ali town, some 40 kilometers east of Miranshah.

Two U.S. drones fired two missiles into a militant compound, and minutes later a second drone fired another two missiles at a vehicle close to the compound, according to media reports.

"At least nine militants were killed in both the U.S. drone strikes. The vehicle was completely burnt and the compound was also destroyed," a media report quoted a security official.

A TV channel later claimed that the U.S. had formally apologized for undertaking the unilateral drone attack. This was later confirmed by Pakistani officials in Islamabad.

It was not clear whether the drones were pursuing any "high-value target" but according to a media report, two intelligence officials in Miranshah said they had received reports from informers on the ground that those killed in the compound were all foreigners. "We don't know their exact identities but we were informed that there were foreigners inside that compound," the report quoted one intelligence official as saying.

Monday's attacks were the fifth and sixth to be reported in Pakistan's tribal areas near the Afghan border since bin Laden’s killing on May 2

The U.S. strikes doubled last year, with more than 100 drone strikes killing over 670 people, and the CIA has said the covert program has severely disrupted al-Qaida's leadership.

Cash-strapped Pakistan has relied in turn on $18 billion from the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Pakistan officially ended support for Afghanistan's Taliban and agreed to work with Washington.

In 2009, Congress also authorized $7.5 billion to help bolster the weak civilian government by building schools, roads and democratic institutions.

As the government and the military leadership were showing flexibility in their stance on future cooperation with Washington, Pakistan’s main opposition leader and two time former prime minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif told supporters in Karachi time had come for Pakistan to break the “beggar’s bowl” and stop taking U.S. aid immediately. Nawaz stressed that in order to restore Pakistan’s integrity “the government should say no to aid before those giving it to us think of stopping it.”

Soon after his announcement, his party’s (the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) government in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, which is led by his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif announced that it won’t accept foreign aid in the future.

Shahbaz told reporters in Lahore, Punjab’s provincial capital that the “anti-foreign aid policy” would set the country free from “foreign slavery, defy drone attacks and prevent a repeat of the Abbottabad operation in future.”

 

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