ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and the United States were able on Friday to avert a possible divorce by agreeing to a compromise agreement to jointly tackle terrorism and work for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.
Islamabad agreed to intensify operations against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in its territory, while Washington softened its stance on ‘unilateral action’ against high-profile terrorist targets inside Pakistan by underscoring the importance of acting together against terrorists.
Notwithstanding the settlement to prevent the differences from becoming unbridgeable, both sides, even after prolonged negotiations, struggled to hide continuing tensions — a feeling accentuated by the absence of a joint statement at the conclusion of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s crucial trip to Islamabad for salvaging the troubled ties caused by the May 2 Abbottabad raid in which Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed.
“We both recognise that there is still much more work required to be done and it is urgent. Today we discussed in even greater detail cooperation to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and to drive them from Pakistan and the region.
“We will do our part and we look to the government of Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead. Joint action against Al Qaeda and its affiliates will make Pakistan, America and the world more safe and more secured,” said Ms Clinton, who was accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, at a media briefing at the American embassy.
The 34-minute interaction with the media was indicative of her and Admiral Mullen’s frame of mind. Both looked exhausted and stressed. Ms Clinton couldn’t conceal her angst as her statement wavered between expression of acknowledgement of the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan in the fight against militancy and frustration over the Taliban and other warring groups operating from Pakistani soil.
This was the mood she and the US top commander carried from their four-hour long talks with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI head Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha.
At the start of the delegation-level talks, both sides, in contrast to diplomatic norms, appeared frigid as they sat stone-faced across the table. The only time Ms Clinton probably smiled during the day was when she at the presser jokingly dismissed the impression that the parleys took place in a tense atmosphere.
The two rounds of talks, including an hour-long one-to-one between Secretary Clinton and President Zardari, focussed on Pakistan’s investigation on how Bin Laden remained unnoticed for years, ending terrorist hideouts in tribal areas, collaboration for Afghan end game and growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
Ms Clinton reminded the Pakistanis that the only way forward in the relationship marred by deep mistrust over counter-terrorism efforts was to redouble efforts in the fight against militants. She spoke of “vicious terrorists” having found sanctuaries on Pakistan soil and Afghan militants operating from safe havens in tribal areas and said it was Islamabad’s responsibility to stop that from happening.
Setting aside diplomacy, she unequivocally warned that if Pakistan did not decisively act against terrorists it could irreversibly harm itself. “There can be no peace, stability, no democracy, no future for Pakistan unless the violent extremists are removed.”
Ms Clinton said she had been assured of “some very specific actions” which Pakistanis would take in coming weeks. She did not share any detail but looked particularly appreciative of Pakistan’s decision to grant access to a CIA team to Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and search for new clues.
According to ABC News, the US side at the talks had demanded immediate action and intelligence sharing on four leading terror names -- Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Siraj Haqqani (operational commander of the Haqqani network), Ilyas Kashmiri and Atiya Abdel Rahman (Libyan operations chief of Al Qaeda, who was a key aide to Bin Laden when he was hiding in Abbottabad).
Talking to Dawn, an American source confirmed the list and said that US softening on its position on unilateral action was conditional. “The message given to Pakistani leaders was loud and clear; you either cooperate with us on these four terrorists or we’ll take care of them by ourselves.”
Something the sceptical secretary found reassuring was a rare acknowledgement made by the Pakistani side at the talks that Osama Bin Laden enjoyed a support network as he spent his years near the Army’s elite training centre. “Our counterparts in the (Pakistani) government were very forthcoming in saying that somebody, somewhere, was providing some kind of support, and they are carrying out an investigation and we have certainly offered to share whatever information we come across.”
About the Abbottabad incident, Pakistani leaders informed Ms Clinton that they wanted to set up a broad-based investigation team comprising non-controversial faces, but the task was being made difficult by opposition groups which were out to do political point-scoring.
In return for the promised counter-terrorism cooperation, Ms Clinton offered “respect for and addressing” Pakistan’s concerns about the political settlement in Afghanistan. She did not elaborate, but said she was convinced that Pakistan had “legitimate” interests in the settlement of Afghan conflict and its role was indispensable for success of the reconciliation process.
Ms Clinton was particularly critical of the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Although she didn’t explicitly say so, it was evident from her remarks that she thought a segment of the establishment was responsible for promoting it.
“In solving its problems Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make its problems disappear,” she said, adding that the country needed to make tough choices be it in the fight against terrorism, governance or economic reforms.
Ms Clinton didn’t go into the context of her harsh comments about anti-Americanism, but a source said these were in direct response to Islamabad’s complaint at the talks that statements by US officials, leaks to media and unilateral actions were reducing the space for cooperation.
Admiral Mullen, reputed as Pakistan’s friend, was more conciliatory in his remarks. He pragmatically mentioned “the challenges under which this relationship now labours” and stressed: “Now is not the time for retreat or for recrimination. Now is the time for action and closer cooperation, not less.”
There was a complete silence from the Pakistani side about the talks, except for a statement by the presidency: “The two sides agreed that in pursuing counter-terrorism the two countries will work together in any future action against high-value targets in Pakistan.”