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Move to defuse tension in Pakistan-US ties

September 12, 2008

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WASHINGTON, Sept 11: On the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, talks of US raids into Fata seem to have strained America’s relations with Pakistan, which has so far been a key US ally in the war against terror.

Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington Husain Haqqani spent part of his day at the White House meeting National Security and the rest on Capitol Hill trying to assure US lawmakers that his country remained a key partner in this war.

Mr Haqqani’s consultations with officials at the White House and the State Department focussed on a New York Times report that President George Bush had given secret orders in July authorising US armed forces to carry out ground assaults in Pakistan without seeking approval from Pakistan’s government.

Under this new policy, the US military will notify Pakistan’s government when it conducts raids, but will not seek its permission.

US official who spoke to other US media outlets after the NYT report was published said the orders were part of a broader push to assert US control over the Afghan-Pakistan border.

On Wednesday, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said that the US military would revise its strategy for Afghanistan to include militant ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan in its area of operation.

The proposed measures followed a policy speech by President George W. Bush on Tuesday in which he said that more than half of the US troops released from Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan.

In Thursday’s Washington Post, columnist Dan Froomkin observed that the new US approach was “all about (for better or for worse) trying to take care of some outstanding business before Bush leaves office”.

The prestigious US Council on Foreign Relations noted that “new statements from high-level military officials in both the United States and Pakistan have brought debate over US cross-border raids into the country to a boil”.

The council said that these new developments had led analysts to wonder if “the United States will be able to work as smoothly with the country’s new government as they did with former President Pervez Musharraf”.

Ambassador Haqqani, however, rejected all such speculations as unfounded.

“It is our understanding that the kind of authorisation for US military actions in Pakistan (that The New York Times reported) has not been given,” said Mr Haqqani after his talks with officials at the White House.

“The US respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and looks at us as partners.”

The ambassador noted that last week’s US raid into South Waziristan did not bear fruit and did not advance the cause of the war against terror.

“The US wants to work in cooperation with us as we intend to do with them.”

He said that officials at the White House and the State Department had assured him that the US had “no aggressive designs or postures” towards Pakistan. “They appreciate the stance of President Zardari, PM Gilani and Army Chief Kayani on this issue,” he said.

On the Hill, the ambassador met members of the Armed Services Committee as part of the embassy’s efforts to remove “the negative impression created by irresponsible reports in the US and Pakistani media”.

Such reports, he said, were also having a negative impact on Pakistan’s efforts to get congressional approval for financing F-16 fighter jets Islamabad was buying from Washington.

“Overall, I find a lot of sympathy and understanding for Pakistan both on the Hill and in the administration,” he said.

“Media reports about authorisation for US raids into Pakistan are incorrect.”

The issue was also discussed at the White House where spokesman Sean McCormack, when asked to comment on the NYT report said: “We don’t control the stories … the only thing I will say about this that the US, Afghan, Pakistan and the rest of the world should have a real interest in the security situation along that border region, including in Fata.”

The State Department spokesman, however, did not say that the NYT story was incorrect or that President Bush had or had not authorised US military raids into Pakistan.

The United States, he said, had a clear interest as do the Pakistanis in combating violence and extremism in Fata and how it affected their country and the world.

Mr McCormack said that the US respected Pakistan sovereignty and had a good working relationship with the country led by President Zardari.

“We have a good channel of communication with Gen Kayani as well as with those who have an interest in fighting terrorism.”

Mr McCormack described President Zardari as “somebody who has been known to us and has been on the Pakistani political scene for some time”.The US, he said, looked forward to a good working relationship with him as he performed his duties as president.