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WASHINGTON, April 21: US and Pakistani diplomats spent Thursday trying to redefine a relationship that threatens to spin out of control if not handled properly. Statements by both US and Pakistani military chiefs since Wednesday, weighed heavily on the talks in Washington that aim at setting the agenda for next month’s strategic dialogue.

As he left Islamabad after a meeting with Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen tried to soften the impact of his earlier claim that the ISI had links with the Haqqani network.

Reaffirmation of the relationship between the US and Pakistani militaries was the most important aspect of his meeting on Wednesday night with his Pakistani counterpart, he said.

“Certainly, we understand we’ve been through a pretty rough period,” said the admiral in a statement carried by the American Forces Press Service. Earlier statements by Mr Mullen and Gen. Kayani tested the skill of the Pakistani envoy in Washington at giving a positive spin to obviously negative developments.

Yet, Ambassador Husain Haqqani insisted that both sides had “overcome bitterness of their recent past” and were ready to rebuild their relationship. “We should try to seek a resolution of our grievances and issues rather than generating an environment of anti-Americanism,” he warned while referring to those who he said had “made it a profession to whip up anti-American feelings”.

Against this backdrop, it seems that Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir walked right into a fire as he arrived at the State Department on Thursday for preparatory talks for the strategic dialogue.

“It is still not clear if he has the right fire-fighting equipment to deal with this situation,” said a diplomatic observer as Mr Bashir moved inside the State Department building for the first round of talks.

US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Marc Grossman led the American team at this meeting of the steering group of the strategic dialogue.

“The two sides are seeking ways to sort out differences and find strategic convergences,” said Mr Haqqani of the diplomatic effort to keep the troubled relationship on track.

The two delegations had a quiet lunch after the first round and then Mr Bashir started bilateral meetings with Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake and Under-secretary William Burns. He is also expected to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later in the evening.

Ambassador Haqqani, Deputy Chief of the Mission Iffat Gardezi, Director General Americas in the Foreign Ministry Suhail Khan and Spokesperson of the Foreign Office Tehmina Janjua accompanied the foreign secretary in the meetings.

On Friday, Mr Grossman and his team will come to the Pakistan Embassy for further talks to “show that the talks were held at both US and Pakistani turfs”, Mr Haqqani said.

According to the American Forces Press Service, meanwhile Admiral Mullen acknowledged that the Pakistani military was engaged in a difficult fight against extremists.

“What’s different this time is the cross-border coordination with our forces, which has made a significant difference,” Mr Mullen said. “It represents a level of coordination that’s better than it’s ever been.”

The Pakistani force has been in a tough fight there for years, he said, adding that Gen. Kayani “has got those challenges of rotation and dwell time and so on. It continues to evolve”.

The admiral would not discuss specifics of his conversations with Gen. Kayani. He said he met the general at least quarterly and those conversations remained private.

“I think about us in our 10th year of war, and the resilience piece has been pretty incredible,” the admiral said. “His military, but particularly his army, has also has shown a level of resilience as well.”