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US objects to talks for peace deal with militants

May 21, 2008

WASHINGTON, May 20: After watching from the sidelines for a few weeks, the United States on Tuesday finally raised objections to Pakistan’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal with militants in the tribal areas.

In a written testimony submitted to a congressional panel, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte also indicated that Islamabad did not consult Washington before making the new peace move as the US learned about it from the media.

“The media has reported that the government of Pakistan has been exploring peace agreements with certain groups in the tribal areas,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Given past failures, we have raised our concerns about these negotiations with Pakistan’s leaders.”

US officials had so far been expressing reservations about the deal, reminding Islamabad that a similar effort by the Musharraf government in 2006 only helped militants regroup and rearm.

The US media also had quoted unnamed official sources as saying that Washington has conveyed its opposition to the proposed deal to Islamabad.

But so far, Mr Negroponte is the first senior US official to acknowledge publicly that the United States not only has concerns about the deal, it also has conveyed its concerns to Pakistan.

In the same paragraph, Mr Negroponte, however, assures Pakistan’s new leaders that the US opposition to the proposed deal should not be seen as a rejection of the country’s democratic set-up.

“It is our belief that a moderate government with a democratic mandate has been and will continue to be a good partner in this extremely difficult effort,” he said.

“We are now working equally hard with Pakistan’s leaders, including the moderate Awami National Party which won elections in the NWFP, to explore how we can help the new government of Pakistan extend the authority of the Pakistani state to the tribal areas.”

In the beginning of his statement, Mr Negroponte spelled out why the United States remains concerned about Pakistan.

“Pakistan is the world’s second most populous Muslim state. It has nuclear weapons, and it is on the front lines of the battle against international terrorism, the most serious security threat of the 21st century,” he said.

Mr Negroponte’s statement also echoes the Afghan position on this issue, which insists that Afghanistan should be involved in any peace move Pakistan makes in the tribal areas.

The Afghan position goes beyond the war on terror and mirrors Kabul’s traditional rejection of the Durand Line as an international border.

Mr Negroponte, however, confined himself to the war on terror. “The terrorist problem in Pakistan and the terrorist problem in Afghanistan are inextricably intertwined,” he said.

“What happens on the Afghan side of the border has a direct impact on Pakistan just as what happens on the Pakistani side affects Afghanistan.”

He said: “The United States needs to find ways to more effectively coordinate and synchronize operations by both nations, and thereby reduce the operating space where the terrorists may function.”

The US official also underlined the need to persuade other nations to help Pakistan deal with the problem of terrorism.

“We must design and execute our strategy to assist Pakistan in such a way as to persuade other nations -- many other nations -- to take the problems the Pakistanis confront as seriously as we do,” he said.

“Regional, Middle Eastern, European, African, and Asian interests are just as threatened by international terrorism and violent extremism as our own interests here in the Western Hemisphere.”

The United States, he said, was also working with Pakistan on a six-year multi-faceted Security Development Plan to enhance the country’s ability to secure its border with Afghanistan.

The plan was co-developed by the US embassy in Islamabad and the US Central Command in coordination with the government of Pakistan.

In fiscal years 2007 to 2008, the US Department of Defence provided over $200 million. In 2009, the US administration is seeking at least $100 million for the plan.

Mr Negroponte said that the Pentagon will equip and train special operations units of the Pakistan Army. Training will focus on the Special Services Group and its helicopter mobility unit, the 21st Quick Reaction Squadron, to enhance its ability to execute combat missions in the border region.