US, Pakistan talks come at key time for Afghan war

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2010 2:27 PM
US, Pakistan talks come at key time for Afghan war

The U.S. and Pakistan will try in high-level talks this week to smooth tensions over American military incursions across the border from Afghanistan and allegations that Islamabad is not doing enough to target Taliban militants.

Washington has signaled its patience is running thin with Pakistan's reluctance to fight insurgents, a stance that has not changed despite billions in American aid.

"We have been pressing Pakistan to take more aggressive action inside its borders to deal with a threat that is of concern to us, a concern to the region and a threat to Pakistan itself," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "But clearly, this is an ongoing threat and more needs to be done."

The Obama administration has tried to enlist greater Pakistani cooperation by stressing it is not just interested in counterterrorism but is willing to provide long-term aid to strengthen the country's economy and improve the living standards of its largely poor population.

Washington also moved swiftly to help Pakistan in the aftermath of massive flooding this summer, donating nearly $400 million and providing 30 military helicopters for rescue and relief missions.

But analysts said much of that goodwill may have been undone when U.S. helicopters accidentally attacked a small Pakistani outpost near the Afghan border late last month, killing two soldiers. The incident led Pakistan to close a key Afghan border crossing to NATO supplies for about 10 days. The U.S. eventually apologized, saying the pilots mistook the soldiers for insurgents.

"When the NATO choppers took out Pakistani soldiers, even pro-American Pakistanis felt a sense of outrage because we are supposed to be on the same team," said Mosharraf Zaidi, an independent political analyst and columnist in Islamabad.

The talks that start Wednesday in Washington will be led by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. They also will involve Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has developed a strong rapport with senior U.S. officials despite allegations that spies under his command have long aided the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.

Underscoring those concerns, the Indian government claimed that Pakistan's intelligence agency was deeply involved in planning the 2008 attack that killed 166 people in Mumbai. David Headley, an American who pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to laying the groundwork for the assault, told Indian interrogators in June that Pakistani intelligence officers were deeply intertwined with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed in the attack, according to a government report obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

"These are allegations we've heard before," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington. "We believe the government of Pakistan has pledged its cooperation in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. And we fully expect that these pledges of cooperation are going to be carried out."

Despite concerns about Pakistan's ties with militants, the U.S. approved a five-year $7.5 billion civilian aid package for the country in 2009 and launched a high-level "strategic dialogue" this year to focus on areas like education, energy and health. The talks this week will be the third in the series.

During the last round in Islamabad in July, Clinton announced more than $500 million in aid for a variety of projects, including renovating hospitals, improving water distribution and upgrading hydroelectric dams.

The U.S. had to re-examine its plans after the meeting, however, after Pakistan was hit by the worst floods in the country's history, with one-fifth of its territory swamped and some 20 million people affected.

In Washington, Frank Ruggiero, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the two countries would discuss long-term military and security assistance to Pakistan to regularize the flow of such aid. A previous multi-year program expired at the end of the 2010 budget year on Sept. 30.

He also said the administration was pleased with Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts to date but wanted to see more, particularly in the lawless, mountainous area of North Waziristan.

"On the entities that are a clear common security threat to the United States and Pakistan, they have taken significant steps," Ruggiero said. "We would call for them to do the same thing in North Waziristan on organizations like the Haqqani network, and we'll continue that discussion with them."

He also said Pakistan's flood recovery would be "a primary area for discussion." He declined to say whether the U.S. would announce a new package of security assistance during the talks.

Pakistani officials plan to raise concerns about what they consider the slow pace of American aid, as well as the lack of access to American markets for Pakistani goods and the recent increase in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal belt, Pakistani presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

The drone strikes and the Sept. 30 cross-border helicopter incursion have been widely seen in Pakistan as an attempt by Washington to put more pressure on Islamabad to go after Taliban militants who use its territory to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama is under pressure to show progress in Afghanistan as a scheduled December review of the war approaches and the president looks to begin bringing troops home by July 2011.

Many analysts believe success in Afghanistan is impossible without Pakistan's cooperation. But they also doubt Pakistan will shift course and attack Taliban militants with whom it has historical ties and could be useful allies in Afghanistan once foreign troops withdraw.

The possibility for cooperation could improve as the U.S. and Afghan governments step up efforts to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban _ a process that seems to be gaining momentum and could be addressed at this week's talks. Pakistan could potentially help with such talks, but serious conflicts remain.

"There are people that the Pakistanis don't want involved in the talks and people they want involved in the talks, and there isn't necessarily a meeting of the minds with the U.S," said Zaidi, the political analyst.

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Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Washington.