Obama: Pakistan review must respect U.S. security needs

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 27, 2012 6:38 AM
Obama: Pakistan review must respect U.S. security needs

By Matt Spetalnick

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama told Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday he hoped a Pakistan parliamentary review of fraught ties with Washington would be balanced and respect U.S. security needs.

In the highest-level contact between the uneasy allies since U.S. commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani military town last May, Obama conceded relations had been strained in recent months.

Pakistan's cooperation is considered critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before most foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014. Pakistan has strong traditional links with the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups.

Pakistan's parliament has been drawing up recommendations on how to proceed on ties with Washington, including a halt to U.S. drone strikes in the country that have enraged many Pakistanis.

"I welcome the fact that the parliament in Pakistan is reviewing, after some extensive study, the nature of this relationship," Obama said at the start of the meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Seoul.

"I think that it's important for us to get it right."

The White House parried the question of whether drone strikes had been discussed during their meeting, saying only that on counter-terrorism, the leaders reviewed how to ensure an ongoing dialogue to improve cooperation.

Gilani said he was pleased to hear Obama talk about sovereignty, and both men spoke of their mutual interest in a stable Pakistan and Afghanistan, putting a measured public face on what has become a severely damaged diplomatic relationship.

Islamabad called the commando raid a violation of its sovereignty, deeply straining ties between the two nations, which sank even further in November when NATO forces in Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani border soldiers by mistake.

"There have been times -- I think we should be frank -- in the last several months where those relations have experienced strains," Obama said.

Pakistan shut off ground supply lines to the U.S.-led NATO mission in land-locked Afghanistan in the wake of the attack, and forced U.S. personnel off a base used to launch drone strikes against militants along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Obama said he hoped the parliamentary review would take a "balanced approach that respects Pakistan's sovereignty, but also respects our concerns with respect to our national security and our needs to battle terrorists who have targeted us in the past".

This was the sole reference to Bin Laden, whose killing in a military town within several hours' drive of the Pakistani capital strained U.S. belief that he could have lived there for years without the knowledge of someone in the government.

Speaking after the meeting, White House national security council spokesman Ben Rhodes said it had made "important progress in both sides, being able to hear directly from one another about what their views are".

(Writing by Alister Bull; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence)