Pakistan: US turn to bridge the 'trust deficit'

Talks to end deadlock fail as Islamabad demands apology for air raid that killed 24 soldiers and end to drone attacks; Washington says first shut out insurgents.

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ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON // US-Pakistan talks to end a diplomatic deadlock between the two countries have broken down over Pakistani demands for an apology over a US air raid and US anger over a Taliban attack in Afghanistan.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Marc Grossman, the US special envoy to Pakistan, left the country after two days of discussions with Pakistani officials ended in failure to reach agreement to repair relations or reopen Nato supply routes into Afghanistan.

Analysts say, however, that the relationship is far too important on both sides to talk of a complete breakdown.

"Both sides still have some common interests. That's why you can't break off the relationship. But [negotiators] have to wait for a more propitious time to go forward," said Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Mr Grossman was trying to patch up the damage done to relations between the two sides by a US air raid in the Salala border region in the Mohmand tribal region in November 2011 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistan's parliament earlier this month recommended that the government seek an unconditional apology from the United States for the Salala strike as well as an end to US drone attacks on militants operating from the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.

In talks with Mr Grossman on Friday, Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, raised the two issues as well as what Pakistan sees as the delay in the Coalition Support Fund - reimbursement of the cost incurred on the use of Pakistani infrastructure in the US-led war on terrorism. Mr Zardari wants the issues to be addressed to revive cooperation in fighting militancy.

"It [is] now the US turn to fully appreciate the democratic course and to help Pakistan in reaching closure to Salala by helping the Pakistan government follow the path as indicated by the parliament," a statement from Mr Zardari's office quoted him as saying.

"Bridging the trust-deficit holds the key to Pakistan rejoining the counter-terrorism cooperation."

US officials told the Times that the two sides had been close to agreement and that the US administration had considered an unconditional apology when a series of apparently coordinated attacks hit Kabul and other Afghan cities on April 15, targeting western embassies, Nato troops and the parliament building.

The US blames the Pakistan-based Haqqani network for planning the attacks. Washington says the Haqqani are the most active of Afghanistan's insurgents, and the US wants Pakistan to move more aggressively to shut down insurgents based in north-west Pakistan, particularly in the tribal area of North Waziristan. Until Pakistan does so, US officials insist that drone strikes across the border remain the only effective means to fight Pakistani-based militants.

Pakistan wants the US to end a practice that it sees as a violation of its sovereignty that has caused civilian casualties.

The use of drone strikes has dramatically increased under the Barack Obama administration, peaking in 2010 with 117 strikes, nearly half of all strikes over the past eight years, according to the Long War Journalwebsite, which tracks the strikes.

And relations suffered other setbacks in 2011, from the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA security officer in February to the operation that killed Osama bin Laden but was seen as a humiliation for Pakistan's army.

Nevertheless, officials from both countries tried to paint the latest talks as only the beginning of what Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, on Friday described as a "re-engagement conversation".

"We're going to have to work through these issues, and it's going to take some time."

A senior Pakistani official said more talks could be held but did not say whether any dates had been fixed.

"The talks with Mr Grossman were not aimed at reaching any conclusion but we wanted to know each other's perspectives and opinions after the parliamentary review and then decide the next step," he told The National on condition of anonymity.

Mr Weinbaum said domestic political considerations in both the US and Pakistan are making reconciliation difficult.

Pakistan's parliament is leaving it to the government to order the reopening of roads for Nato supplies, a decision that will be unpopular in Pakistan. An unconditional US apology to Pakistan for the Salala strike, meanwhile, could play badly in the US after the April 15 attacks.

Many Republicans see Islamabad as at best a reluctant ally and at worst as an active supporter of the Taliban.

Mr Obama is seeking re-election in November, while Pakistan may also hold general elections this year.