ISLAMABAD: CIA chief Leon Panetta arrived here on Friday to press Pakistani leaders for continuation of “critical US intelligence operations” and assess whether they are living up to counter-terrorism commitments made last month.
Discussions on the Afghan end-game and reconciliation with warring Taliban groups are also high on the CIA chief’s agenda.
Mr Panetta, who is set to succeed outgoing Robert Gates as US defence secretary in about three weeks, is expected to meet a number of civil and military leaders, but his visit itinerary is being kept a tightly-guarded secret.
While most of his meetings, sources said, were scheduled for Saturday, Mr Panetta started his visit by meeting Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Friday night.
If media statements over the past couple of days are any indication, the parleys are likely to be very intense because both sides have taken extreme positions in public before this interaction.
Mr Panetta landed in Islamabad a day after the military top brass agreed to curtail CIA operations in Pakistan and streamline the ISI-CIA working relationship which has been at the core of strained bilateral ties since the killing by Raymond Davis of two youths in Lahore early this year.
CIA footprint in Pakistan has been significantly reduced after the May 2 US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
A top defence official said that pressure was now being exerted on the country’s leaders to allow certain critical operations which had been affected because of the American spy agency’s reduced presence.
He did not elaborate what the critical operations were, but these may be related to Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists who have taken up refuge inside Pakistan.
The US and Pakistan have already formed a joint task force for ISI-CIA cooperation, but the American spy agency isn’t ready to fully trust its Pakistani counterpart and desires to have an independent intelligence gathering mechanism.
During a corps commanders’ conference on Thursday, the military leadership had taken a hard-line stance that “no intelligence agency can be allowed to carry out independent operation on our soil.”
It will be interesting to see what the two countries finally settle for and what is ultimately shared with the public, especially after the military brass took a principled stance that unlike the past when lot of secret deals were worked out between ISI and CIA, intelligence cooperation in future would be “transparent, visible and documented”.
According to source, the CIA chief will also seek progress on the “decisive steps” Pakistani leaders had committed during their meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month when she visited Islamabad along with Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
While the Americans had handed over a list of five wanted terrorists, including Ilyas Kashmiri who is reported to have died last week in a drone attack in Wana (South Waziristan), Pakistan was said to have committed to clearing tribal areas, including North Waziristan, of terrorist sanctuaries.
At his confirmation hearing prior to departure for Pakistan, Mr Panetta had warned that continuation of terrorist cells could compromise US success in Afghanistan and called for an accelerated campaign to end them.
Urging Pakistan to live up to the bargain, he said that future security assistance for Pakistan was contingent upon fulfilment of the pledges of “concrete steps”.
The army’s decision to divert US military aid to country’s ailing economy has in a way practically taken away one of the levers the Pentagon and CIA traditionally had by indicating that it (the military) didn’t rely too much on the American aid.
The talks will also focus on reconciliation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been asking the US to make a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda so that a political dialogue with the warring groups could be initiated.
Mr Panetta’s trip coincided with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Islamabad for the inaugural session of Pak-Afghan joint commission on peace and reconciliation.
The joint commission, being seen as major a step forward in bringing Kabul and Islamabad on same page for peace and reconciliation efforts, however, is meeting an uncertain environment because of lack of clear American support for dialogue with the Taliban.
The US has not shared information of its contacts with the second-tier leadership of Taliban led by Tayyab Agha, a close aide of Mullah Umar, in Germany with either Pakistan or Afghanistan, adding to doubts about the process.