Pakistan and US hold 'strategic dialogue' meeting in Washington

The foreign minister of Pakistan and the head of the country's army, are holding a first-of-a-kind 'strategic dialogue' with the US Secretary of State.

WASHINGTON // The foreign minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and General Ashfaq Kayani, head of the country's army, are holding a first-of-a-kind "strategic dialogue" with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, today. The United States is hoping to show Pakistan the benefits of its co-operation against extremism, but it looks set to disappoint Islamabad on its ambitious goal of a civilian nuclear deal.

President Barack Obama's administration has cautiously welcomed what it sees as a shift in Pakistan and is looking to convince the country's public, where anti-Americanism is rife, that it is committed to a long-term partnership. Pakistan has come to the meeting with Mrs Clinton with a detailed wish-list in areas from improving access to water and energy to getting hold of lethal drones. Yesterday Mr Qureshi said at the Pakistani embassy in Washington: "We have a relationship that goes back 60 years, but I'm here to build a partnership. And when you build a partnership, it has to be built on trust."

Pakistan would like to forge an agreement to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy. A deal could help the developing country curb chronic blackouts - and tacitly recognise Pakistan as the Islamic world's sole nuclear power. The United States forged a landmark nuclear agreement in 2008 with Pakistan's historic rival, India. The two South Asian powers stunned the world with nuclear tests in 1998. The Pakistani foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, told reporters: "India and Pakistan, we have been in this together in South Asia, so what is good for India should be good for Pakistan."

US officials have publicly sidestepped the issue. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said only that "we're ready to listen to anything." Asked by Pakistan's Express TV if nuclear cooperation could assuage the country's energy crisis, Mr Clinton said there were "more immediate steps that can be taken", including upgrading power plants. Unlike in India's case, US officials have concerns about Pakistan powering nuclear proliferation. The father of Pakistan's bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has admitted to leaking nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, although he later retracted his remarks.

Pakistan is also seeking unmanned attack drones. The United States has so far only given Pakistan surveillance drones. The United States has launched more than 90 drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2008, killing more than 830 people, according to local sources. US officials say they have killed top al Qa'eda and Taliban militants, but the Pakistani government bristles at the undercutting of its sovereignty.

A Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell downplayed expectations for major announcements, saying it was a mistake to see the dialogue as "a discussion of requests and replies." Yesterday Mr Qureshi and Gen Kayani met Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Lugar, who were behind last year's Bill that promised US$7.5 billion in aid over five years to build Pakistan's infrastructure and democratic institutions.

Many Pakistanis are distrustful of the United States, remembering how it distanced itself in the 1990s after teaming up with Islamabad to arm Islamic guerrillas who ousted Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Mr Holbrooke said that the dialogue, which will include working groups on Thursday and further rounds in Islamabad, was part of a "strategic vision" by the United States. "That is that Pakistan is important in its own right. We don't view it simply as a function of its giant neighbour to the east or its war-torn neighbour to the west," Mr Holbrooke said.

Mr Bashir said many Pakistanis had grown irritated by American calls for the country to do more against extremists. "Pakistan has done much more. We are doing it for our own sake," he said. "So I think it's perhaps best not to get into that argument." In recent month Pakistan has launched a major military offensive against homegrown Taliban and arrested prominent militants. But some have questioned Pakistan's motivations. The former UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said Pakistan's arrest of one top Taliban leader served to close secret communications aimed at reconciliation between the militant group and the Afghan government.

Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank, said: "The main problem is that the United States and Pakistan are still far apart in terms of how they perceive the situation in Afghanistan. "The US is of course seeking to ensure the Taliban cannot return to power, while Pakistan is mainly interested in limiting Indian influence." *AFP