Despite some tough talk, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan seemed to subtly soften Washington's stand on a key point of contention between the two countries: whether Islamabad should take military action against Pakistan-based insurgents fighting American troops in Afghanistan, or try to engage them in peace talks.
Clinton seemed to acknowledge during her two-day visit that ended Friday that help with a negotiated settlement is perhaps the best the U.S. can hope for from Pakistan. This shift in the U.S. stance could give Washington and Islamabad new room to cooperate on ending the Afghan war.
But serious barriers to negotiations remain. The U.S. believes that military force is still needed to push the Taliban and their allies to make concessions. Pakistan, which Washington alleges supports some of the militant groups, prefers on the other hand to reduce violence to induce the insurgents to come to the table.
Islamabad is also worried about being blamed if peace talks fail. It has long-standing ties with the armed groups, but the militants are unpredictable and resistant to pressure. Pakistan is furthermore unsure of exactly what kind of deal the U.S. and Afghan governments might strike with the insurgents, and the atmosphere is permeated by feelings of distrust on all sides.
The U.S. has long demanded that Pakistan take greater military action against Taliban militants and their allies who use Pakistani territory to regroup and to send fighters to attack forces in Afghanistan. Recently, the U.S. has pushed for an assault on the Haqqani militant network, which the U.S. alleges is supported by the Pakistan military's spy agency, the ISI. The U.S. deems the Haqqanis the greatest threat to American troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has denied supporting the Haqqanis, but has also made clear that it will not conduct an offensive against the group's safe haven in the North Waziristan tribal area, a position that has not changed despite the two-day visit by Clinton and other senior national security officials, including CIA chief David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Many analysts believe Pakistan's refusal is driven by its belief that the Haqqanis could be key allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of archenemy India.
The Pakistani military, however, says that its failure to act against the Haqqanis is just a question of limited resources. It claims its troops are stretched too thin by operations in other parts of the tribal region of northwest Pakistan that are deemed a higher priority _ a stance reiterated by the Pakistanis following talks with Clinton's delegation.
"There is limited capacity, and if the organization is overstretched and starts to develop cracks, that is counterproductive," said a senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment on the outcome of the closed-door talks.
Clinton seemed to soften the U.S. stance during a town hall meeting in Islamabad. When asked whether the U.S. expects Pakistan to militarily tackle the Haqqani network or force them to the negotiating table, she said, "It's more the latter."
Clinton also confirmed that the U.S. had tried to reach out to the Haqqanis directly in peace efforts. She is the first U.S. official to publicly acknowledge the overtures, which were first reported by The Associated Press in August. She said the meeting was organized by the ISI.
The U.S. has not totally backed away from blunt public statements urging Pakistan to fight the Haqqanis. Clinton said Islamabad must rid the country "of terrorists who kill their own people and who cross the border to kill people in Afghanistan."
The tough message may be intended to avoid making the U.S. look weak in its policy toward a militant group accused of attacking American civilians and soldiers in Afghanistan. It could also be meant to keep up perceived pressure on the Haqqanis to get them to negotiate.
Pakistan doesn't believe the U.S. plan to use military action to force militants into peace talks will work _ a disagreement that has bedeviled the process.
"In our culture, it may not work if you want to negotiate with the same adversary you are fighting," said the Pakistani security official. "You have to declare a pause in fighting if you want to give peace a chance."
Clinton made clear the U.S. feels otherwise, saying during the town hall meeting that experience has shown that only a combination of fighting and talking "will convince some to come to negotiations and will remove others who are totally opposed to peace and want to continue their violent attacks."
Pakistan is open to approaching the Taliban and their allies about participating in peace talks, but can't provide any guarantees that its efforts will succeed, said the security official.
"Contact does not mean that they are in our pockets," said the official. "Contact means we will suggest to them that they participate."
Both the Taliban and the Haqqanis have been difficult partners for Pakistan over the years.
In the late 1990s, the founder of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, refused Islamabad's demand to hand over militants in his camps in Afghanistan who had carried out attacks inside Pakistan. Following the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused Pakistan's plea to hand over al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to a potential peace deal, however, is that nobody seems to have a clear idea whether the Taliban and their allies have any interest in negotiating.
"We're not sure," said Clinton. "There may be no appetite for talking on the other side for ideological reasons or whatever other motivations."
After the U.S. met with a senior Haqqani official over the summer, the group allegedly carried out an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and staged a truck bombing days later that wounded 77 American soldiers.
The peace process also took a big blow with the assassination in Kabul of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was tasked with the government's outreach to the Taliban. It's still unclear who carried out the attack. The Afghan government has said it was planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the Taliban leadership's suspected base, and the interior minister accused the ISI of being involved. But no evidence has been provided.
The allegations have soured relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as did a strategic partnership agreement that Kabul recently signed with India _ the first of its kind that Afghanistan has reached with any country.
U.S. accusations that Pakistan has supported the Haqqani network have also increased feelings of mistrust on all sides.
"These kinds of public pronouncements don't help enhance the space for cooperation," said the Pakistani security official. "They badly affect the space, which is limited to begin with."
Kathy Gannon, AP Special Regional Correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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