US and Pakistan arrive at understanding

Three days of high-level civilian and military talks between Washington and Karachi have resulted in significant agreements on strategic co-operation,

epa02090986 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) holds a brief press conference after a bilateral meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Mahmoud Qureshi at the State Department in Washington, DC on 24 March, 2010.  EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo *** Local Caption ***  02090986.jpg
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ISLAMABAD // The three days of "strategic dialogue" between the civilian and military hierarchies of the United States and Pakistan in Washington were remarkable, not for what was announced on Friday at their conclusion, but for the dramatic warming of relations that led to them. Independent analysts agree that the two governments have arrived at an understanding that, crudely put, amounts to: "If you [Pakistan] use your influence with the Taliban to bail us out in Afghanistan, we [the US and our partners] will give you a big say in the endgame, keep India off your back and save you from the financial, energy and water crises that have brought your economy to its knees."

Yet, just five months ago, in October, a five-year US economic assistance programme worth US$7.5 billion (Dh27.5 billion) was being publicly lambasted by the high command of Pakistan's army, which casts a domineering shadow over national politics, for containing "clauses impacting on national security". Specifically, the Congress required Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, to certify that the Pakistani military had ceased clandestine support for the Afghan Taliban and other militant factions fighting US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Through its many sympathisers in the media, the generals forced Asif Ali Zardari, the president, to cede foreign and defence policymaking to the army, instantly changing the dynamics of Pakistan's relations with the US. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reviled by the Pakistani military for bully-tactics, has been replaced by Mrs Clinton, who visited Pakistan in the 1990s during her husband's presidency, as the face of America.

Her decision to tour Pakistan in late October, at a time when popular perception of the US was scarred by xenophobia, was courageous, in that it involved a great deal of face-to-face contact with outspoken segments of society, and productive in that it replaced a nagging America with an opinionated but charming old friend. It was Mrs Clinton who played gracious host in Washington last week, setting the tone with scenes of bonhomie with Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's suave foreign minister. She paid homage to Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, and delivered a personalised message for the Pakistani public.

Addressing the public directly, she said: "Our countries have had our misunderstandings in the past. And there are sure to be more disagreements in the future, as there are between any friends or, frankly, any family members. But this is a new day." However, it was America's generals, rather than its politicians, who broke the ice with Gen Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, according to independent analysts privy to behind-the-scenes dialogue in December. The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was Adml Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen David Petraeus, commander of the US Central Command, who earned the trust of Gen Kayani in December by taking seriously his concerns about Pakistan's strategic interests in the region and domestic economic troubles and asking what the US could do to help.

Since then, the US has ceased its criticism of the Pakistani military's long-standing relations with key Afghan Taliban players, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, and replaced it with a qualified appreciation of the decisive counter-terrorist campaign mounted in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan since last summer, the sources said. The US's change of diplomatic tack broke the siege mentality afflicting the Pakistani military, allowing it to represent its strong links with Afghan Taliban factions as an asset for Nato and the United States in their quest for an honourable exit from Afghanistan.

With Nato forces scheduled to begin a staggered withdrawal in 2011, Gen Kayani found attentive audiences at conferences of international political leaders and Nato defence chiefs held in London and Brussels in January. Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, said the sequence of events persuaded the Pakistani military to lead the US Central Intelligence Agency to the Karachi front door of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, military chief of the Afghan Taliban.

"The Pakistan army now feels comfortable enough in its relationship with the US to move against those people," Mr Gul said in an interview. The arrest played particularly well in Washington and set the tone for last week's dialogue. The strategic dialogue has played just as well in Pakistan. Pakistan's previously xenophobic cable channels have refrained from criticism, instead using satire and images of Mrs Clinton and Mr Qureshi, the foreign minister, to portray the dialogue as a reconciliation of estranged lovers.

Analysts said the onus of taking the bilateral relationship forward has now shifted back to Pakistan. "The very fact that the dialogue took place is, in itself, a recognition by the US of the centrality of Pakistan's role in Afghanistan," Mr Gul said. "It is now up to Pakistan to turn this strategic dialogue into a strategic opportunity in the coming four or five years."