December 14, 2011

Obama administration tries to improve ties with Pakistan

MATT PEACOCK: The Obama administration has mounted the political equivalent of a charm offensive to save the military alliance with Pakistan from collapse.

Defence secretary Leon Panetta has tied success in Afghanistan to keeping a stable relationship with Pakistan. 

His comments coincided with more signals from Islamabad about its preparedness to fight back if NATO and US forces carry out any future attacks on Pakistani soil.

Peter Lloyd reports.

PETER LLOYD: The US defence secretary is in Kabul today for talks with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, but Leon Panetta's focus is as much on mending fences with Afghanistan's neighbour.

Military and intelligence chiefs in Pakistan have been publicly sabre rattling about fighting US and NATO forces if they transgress Pakistan's sovereignty again.

Here's what Leon Panetta said en route to Kabul. 

LEON PANETTA: It's going to be important that as we're able to move and progress in our efforts in Afghanistan that we continue to do outreach to Pakistan. This has been a difficult and complicated relationship but it is an important relationship and it's one that we have to continue to work at. 

PETER LLOYD: Those soothing words from Leon Panetta came as the Pakistani side redrew the line in the sand, with more blunt public declarations about the need for outsiders to respect territorial integrity.

Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani told a meeting of senior military chiefs and diplomats in Islamabad that the future terms of the alliance with NATO and the US would be decided as part of a foreign policy shake-up still being developed. 

It all stems from the humiliation of the November 26 attack by US and NATO forces that killed 24 Pakistani troops on the border with Afghanistan.

After the attack, the Pakistanis withdrew military liaison officers from border coordination centres and NATO headquarters in Kabul.

This communications blackout meant Islamabad was effectively going dark on the alliance that's seen by most ordinary Pakistanis as poison.

The Pakistanis gave further signals of the seriousness of their intent to fight fire with fire by moving air defence systems to the border with Afghanistan.

In recent days the US side has been attempting to woo back the influential Pakistani military.

The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, US Marine General John Allen, has spoken to Pakistan's chief of army, General Ashfaq Kayani for the first time since the November 26 attack. 

JOHN ALLEN: The intent of the conversation, the outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that might have caused this event but also to ensure that we work closely together.

PETER LLOYD: Despite the Americans doing their best to talk up the alliance, others believe it really is in jeopardy and in a way that it never has been before. 

The Pakistani author and commentator Ahmed Rashid.

AHMED RASHID: It's in very serious trouble. I don't think we've ever seen such a deterioration in relations between Pakistan and the US and the fact is that now over the last few days, Pakistan has taken almost every step possible that it could take to break off all kinds of cooperation with the Americans; intelligence, military, economic, aid, almost every kind of cooperation has been stopped from the Pakistani side. 

And obviously this has led to both frustration and anger in the United States and also it's made coming back to normal much more difficult. 

PETER LLOYD: How significant do you think is this meeting that's happened in Islamabad over two days of the top diplomats and the ISI chief and other key leaders?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I mean, what is happening is that the government is actually lining up all the deals that it had with the United States, many of them which were not written, which were verbal deals between the former president Musharraf et cetera et cetera, for example allowing the CIA to hunt down al Qaeda, the drone missile attacks. 

So what is happening is now the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the army and the ISI and all the rest of it, are drawing up a new list of agreements with the United States which will have to be negotiated and which they're demanding for the first time would have to be written agreements. Now this is something the Americans would be very nervous about and it would certainly not agree to. 

So I don't know where exactly we go from here but I mean it's not a happy picture. 

PETER LLOYD: Can the Americans succeed in Afghanistan without the alliance with Pakistan? 

AHMED RASHID: No I don't think they can because I think the most significant part of that alliance is talking to the Taliban and they need a political resolution with the Taliban before they leave Afghanistan and that's not going to be possible as long as, given that most of the Taliban leadership is living in Pakistan and that most of the Pakistanis are reluctant to play ball. 

PETER LLOYD: Is the great danger here that the Pakistanis could play a wrecking role in those talks? 

AHMED RASHID: Well yes absolutely. If, you know, already we've seen one attempt which the Pakistanis didn't like, which was the dialogue that went on between the Americans and the Taliban which was brokered by Germany in Qatar and it would have led to the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar. It's something the Pakistanis didn't like and I think to some extent they probably have put pressure on various elements to try and sabotage that. 

PETER LLOYD: Who do you believe is really running this dialogue at the moment? Is it Kayani and Pasha or is it the prime minister, the civilians? 

AHMED RASHID: No there's no doubt that the whole tone and if there has to be any discussion with the Americans the conditions will be set by the military. 

MATT PEACOCK: That's the Pakistani author and commentator Ahmed Rashid, ending that report by Peter Lloyd.

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