US officials in Pakistan
Holbrooke, Mullen urge steps to eliminate safe havens ISLAMABAD: Pakistan rejected on Tuesday a US proposal for joint operations in the tribal areas against terrorism and militancy, as differences of opinion between the two countries over various aspects of the war on terror came out into the open for the first time.
Highly-informed sources said the move followed a collective decision reached between the government and security establishment to adopt a tough posture against a barrage of attacks and criticism emanating in recent weeks from Washington, directly targeting the Pakistan army and the ISI and creating doubts about their sincerity in the war on terror and the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban.
Two top US officials, presidential envoy for the region Richard Holbrooke and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, had come to Islamabad with the idea of doing some tough talking and pressuring both the political and the military leadership to step up their efforts in the war on terror.
Instead, what they got was a barrage of criticism of the American position and the allegations constantly levelled against Islamabad about either protecting some Taliban elements or not doing enough to eliminate what the United States believes are the main elements carrying out attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan.
According to a source in the US delegation, the stance taken by the Pakistani side came as a rude shock to the Americans, who had so far been taking the civilian and military leadership for granted.
Pakistani sources said the proposal for joint operations in the tribal areas was floated by Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen during a series of meetings with the civilian and military leadership.
The sources said the US officials were also told that continuing drone attacks inside Pakistan’s territory were counter-productive and they were asked to shift the drone technology and authority to the Pakistan Army.
The sources said that army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, during his meeting with Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen, also took a tough stance over drone attacks. He voiced serious concern over the tirade of allegations against Inter-Services Intelligence levelled by US generals and said that linking the ISI with the Taliban was inappropriate.
The army chief, the sources said, expressed Pakistan’s concerns without mincing his words. The US officials were told that it would be difficult to bridge the trust deficit if statements maligning the ISI kept coming from the United States, ignoring the contributions of the Pakistan army and ISI in the war on terror.
The sources also said that the ISI chief, Gen Asif Shuja Pasha, declined to separately meet the US officials, obviously because of the campaign launched against the premier intelligence agency, but perhaps citing other engagements. It was a clear expression of his annoyance over the well-organised campaign by a section in the US administration to single out the ISI for its criticism.
However, in a late-night statement, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt-Gen Athar Abbas, said that the ISI chief was present at the army chief’s meeting with the US officials.
Although Mr Holbrooke tried to downplay the ISI issue during a chat with a select group of reporters by saying that neither he nor Admiral Mullen had levelled any allegation against the agency, the admiral interrupted him and came out with a different point of view saying that there were challenges associated with the ISI.
He alleged that there was support for ‘some organisations’. He said the intelligence agencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan had played a role in the past. He said that ‘both the countries have a common enemy at the border now but the legacy remains’.
The US officials said they were trying to encourage cooperation between intelligence agencies of the two countries.
Admiral Mullen termed the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud a threat to the United States and said he facilitated attacks inside Afghanistan and posed a threat to the Nato forces which included US troops.
In reply to a question, Mr Holbrooke alleged the bulk of Taliban leadership was in Pakistan, and not in Afghanistan. ‘Any day they may be in Karachi, Miramshah or some other city.’ He said both Pakistan and the US had a common enemy, threat and challenge. Mr Holbrooke said the attack on Mumbai had been carried out by ‘strategic terrorists’ who wanted to damage relationship between India and Pakistan and their goal was to ignite a war between the two countries. He underlined the need for both countries to work together.
He evaded a question about the Kashmir dispute and just said that the United States would not mediate between India and Pakistan.
At the joint press conference with Mr Holbrooke, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, quite in contrast with his usual diplomatic, effusive and soft-spoken demeanour, was quite firm and categorical in mentioning Pakistan’s reservations with regard to the way the US was handling its ally in the war on terror and its anti-Pakistan campaign.
The disagreements between the two sides pertained largely to the drone strikes in Pakistani territory and the vilification campaign against the ISI. ‘While there are some positive elements and we recognise and appreciate them, there are certain red lines,’ Mr Qureshi said in a passionate tone, adding that those ‘red lines’ were discussed and he would take them up at a subsequent US-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral interaction planned for next month in Washington.
Mr Qureshi said: ‘We did talk about drones and let me be very frank: there is a gap between us and them.’
He attributed this divergence to the trust deficit between the two allies and said: ‘The bottom line is the question of trust.’
It was clear from the foreign minister’s words that there was a fundamental shift in the way Islamabad now wanted to deal with Washington. ‘The terms of engagement are very clear… We will engage with mutual trust and mutual respect in view and that is the bottom line.’
Mr Qureshi’s message perhaps could not have been more unequivocal; he stated that cooperation could continue only if balance and respect were restored to the relationship.
‘We can only work together if we respect each other and trust each other. There is no other way and nothing else will work,’ he said rather bluntly.
Reacting to President Barack Obama’s assertion that there would be ‘no blank cheques for Pakistan”, the foreign minister said: “We neither accept nor give one.’
Mr Qureshi also said that Pakistan’s expectations from its friends were not just monetary. ‘We have certain expectations from the Friends of Democratic Pakistan. Most importantly, these expectations are not cents and dollars; rather it is the political support that Pakistan expects from them.’
Ambassador Holbrooke downplayed Mr Qureshi’s outburst by saying that the US was already addressing these issues through negotiations and would continue the approach in days to come. ‘In line with Foreign Minister Qureshi’s suggestions, we hosted the first Pakistan-Afghanistan-US trilateral meeting in Washington. We also went to The Hague… We will go to Tokyo, the second round of trilateral conference in Washington on May 6 and 7. This is the pattern that will continue.’
Admiral Mullen reiterated that the US commitment to Pakistan was for a long term and would lead to ‘a surplus of trust’.
Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen, who came to Pakistan together for the first time, also held meetings with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif. On Monday night, they had held a meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari.
Wahyusamputra writes Untangling the Threads:
1. The CIA have established a numerous and very fruitful network of informants in the UK Pakistani community, to which the UK security bodies wish to retain access. Threats to discontinue intelligence sharing are usually enough to make the UK keep quiet about anything the US wants kept quiet, such as Binyam Mohammed.
2. India's permanent refusal to hold a plebiscite to let the inhabitants of Kashmir decide their own status, as demanded by the UN, since India has no chance of winning the referendum, is strongly supported by Israel, and by the US, which may not in the final analysis bode well for India. The US is quite clear that India must be supported, and Pakistan, promoted from chief ally to chief target, must be attacked.
3. Enormous volumes of obfuscation are necessary to obscure the fact that no country wishes to be invaded and occupied, or to have its population the target of missile strikes. Gordon Brown's blockade of the Gaza coastline to help the Israelis keep the fish in the barrel is a clear indication of current loyalties.