Pakistan parliament to discuss US ties next week

AP News
Posted: Mar 15, 2012 7:40 AM
Pakistan parliament to discuss US ties next week

Pakistan's parliament will debate new terms of engagement with the United States next week, a process expected to pave the way for the reopening of NATO and U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan, lawmakers and government officials said.

Ties have been frozen since American air strikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Afghan border in November, complicating U.S. efforts to negotiate an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan because Islamabad's cooperation in that process is seen as vital in that endeavor.

The incident triggered an outpouring of anger at America and calls for the permanent severing of ties between Washington and Islamabad. But that was never likely given both countries dependence on each other. Instead, it appears Pakistan has used the incident as leverage to extract better terms in what has been an uneasy and largely transactional relationship since Pakistan allied with the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The decision to re-engage with Washington is a sensitive one given the anger in the country, so the army and the government have repeatedly said over the last two months that the parliament, not them, will make the decision, essentially giving them some political cover.

The all-party committee tasked with coming up with recommendations for the new policy toward the U.S. will present its recommendations to a joint session of both houses of parliament on Monday, two committee members and a government official said. They didn't give their names because of the sensitivity surrounding the issue.

The lawmakers said the main recommendation was that Pakistan seek more money for allowing the U.S. and NATO to use its soil to truck fuel, food and other supplies to their troops in Afghanistan. Another is that the government seek an apology for the border killings, they said.

The committee wanted "continuity" in its relations with the United States, and there was no other conditions spelled out other than vague demands that the Washington will protect the country's sovereignty and there will be no repetition of the airstrikes, one said.

The recommendations of the committee are likely to be approved by the parliament without any major change because the committee was made up of representatives of the major political parties and it reached its conclusions by consensus, the lawmakers said.

"There will be some settlement on this issue," said Salim Saifullah Khan, who until last week was head of the senate foreign relations committee. "We both want peace in Afghanistan, so there is convergence there. By the end of March, the supply lines should be open."

U.S. officials have made it clear they want relations to restart and the border to reopen.

Currently supplies are getting into Afghanistan by air and through countries to the north, a far more expensive route. As it draws down troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistani supply lines will also become important for trucking equipment home.

Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month he expected to visit Pakistan in mid-to-late March to talk with leaders about reopening the supply routes. His would be the first trip by a U.S. military official since the airstrikes, and will be taken as a high-level sign that Pakistan's army leadership wants to re-engage.

The recommendations do not reference American drone strikes against militant targets in the northwest of the country, the frequency of which has plagued relations between the two countries since 2010. Pakistani officials have long publicly demanded that all attacks stop, but in private are said to have consented to at least some of them.

There have been at least 11 drone attacks this year so far, a significant drop in frequency over last year and 2010, when they averaged about two a week. The strikes have elicited little response from Pakistani officials, indeed they have been ignored.

Khursheed Ahmed, a former senator from Pakistan's hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party, said he resigned from the committee as some of his suggestions about certain issues of national importance were ignored. Another member of the committee said Ahmed stepped down because he wanted the recommendations to include a demand that drone attacks be ended

Last month, Pakistan publicly committed to doing what it can to encourage the Afghan Taliban to take part in peace talks to end the war, a process supported by the United States. The leaders of the insurgency are based in Pakistan, so Washington and Kabul realize that Islamabad _ which has its own interests in any deal _ will have to be taken on board.