WASHINGTON, June 17: A trilateral forum, which brings the United States and India in a new arrangement with Afghanistan, is not directed against Pakistan, says a senior US official.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake claims that the main goal of this forum, announced in Washington this week, was to bring stability and economic development to war-torn Afghanistan.

“This is certainly not in any way seen as directed against Pakistan,” said Mr Blake. “On the contrary, it's to talk about the situation inside Afghanistan but also how we continue to support Afghanistan.”

Official US sources say that the assurance, given at a news briefing in Washington, is more than a conciliatory statement aimed at allaying Pakistan’s fears.

They say that American policy makers genuinely believe that they need to address Pakistan’s fears on three major issues: (1) The US is encouraging India to squeeze Pakistan from both ends, (2) it wants to create an independent Balochistan, and (3) it has only short-term tactical interests in Pakistan.

The fears were sparked by recent statements by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and some other officials who publicly criticised Pakistan for continuing to support the Haqqani network.

During a visit to New Delhi last week, Mr Panetta encouraged India to play a greater role in Afghanistan and the next day he told reporters in Kabul that the US was running out of patience with Pakistan.

The statements hurt sentiments in Pakistan and some US media reports also noted that this would isolate a country which would continue to be important for the United States even after Americans troops pulled out of the region. But the first on the record reminder that Mr Panetta had “overspoken” came from the US Congress where apparently Pakistan does not have many friends.

A top Republican lawmaker, Senator John McCain, reminded the Obama administration that encouraging India to take a more active role in Afghanistan while simultaneously criticising Pakistan could be a recipe for disaster.

But a greater display of camaraderie with Pakistan came from a senior Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee. She told a recent congressional hearing that apologising to Pakistan over the Salala incident would improve America’s relations with a key ally.

Senator Feinstein enjoys a key position in the Democratic Party and is also believed to have close links to the Obama administration.

Diplomatic observers in Washington do not rule out the possibility that the Obama administration encouraged her to make that statement to end the deadlock over the Nato supply routes.

Salala apology

Pakistan closed the routes after the Nov 26 US air raid on one of its military post in Salala which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Although a US team recently spent six weeks in Islamabad trying to get the routes reopened, it returned to Washington last week without achieving that objective.

Secretary Panetta initially said that Pakistan was trying to “price gouge” the Americans but the Pakistanis rejected his claim, saying that they were even willing to accept the previous tariff of $250 a truck if the Americans apologies over the Salala incident.

This made the Americans realise that the Pakistanis were serious over the apology and that Washington would have to come up with a statement that satisfied Islamabad without hurting the Obama administration in the November elections.

So far, the two sides have discussed three drafts but are yet to finalise a statement that satisfies both. It is felt that a magical word that does wonder in mending individual relations — sorry — could also help defuse tensions between the US and Pakistan.

While saying ‘sorry’, the Americans would also like to convince the Pakistanis that their interest in Pakistan is not tactical and that they want a long-term relationship with Islamabad.

The US cannot afford to “cut off all relations with Pakistan because then it could become even more unstable and we could have even greater challenges since they have a nuclear inventory, among other things”, as Senator McCain said.

Policy makers in Washington believe that the Indians will not send their troops to Afghanistan even if the Americans want them to. And therefore, the US will have to deal with Pakistan if it wants long-term stability in Afghanistan.

“This also means that there is no question of squeezing Pakistan from both sides,” said a US observer. This also explains why some senior members of President Barack Obama’s Afghan team are urging the administration to apologies to Pakistan over the Salala incident.

Balochistan issue

Another issue that can hurt US ties with Pakistan is that of Balochistan. The Americans are concerned that the Pakistani people, if not the government, feel that they want to break up their country by creating an independent Balochistan.

In every meeting that they have with Pakistani journalists, US officials assure them that “they have no desire to do so”. Their concern, they say, is confined to human rights violations, by the army as well as the militants. They want the Pakistani government to find a political solution to the issue, which ends the insurgency.

The Americans also say that even India does not want to help create an independent Balochistan, although they acknowledge that the Indians do want to “keep the pot boiling” to stop the Pakistanis from supporting Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups in Kashmir.

The Americans say they believe that the Pakistani military also wants to get rid of this group but only after it overcomes insurgency in Fata.

“It is a question of capacity, not desire. The Pakistanis feel that they cannot open too many fronts at this stage,” said an US observer.

Military’s attitude

The Americans say that they also have sensed a change in the attitude of the Pakistani military over some key issues. The Pakistani military, they say, is concerned about the national economy and therefore it understands the importance of improving ties with India.

The Pakistani military, the Americans say, also seems to have realised that its search for a strategic depth in Afghanistan is not helping it and appears willing to abandon this search.

But at the same time, it wants to retain its influence in Afghanistan and that’s why it is reluctant to abandon the Haqqani group.

The Americans want the Pakistanis to know that this is one issue over which no US administration can compromise because the Haqqanis are killing American soldiers.

The Americans are urging Pakistanis to at least prevent the Haqqanis from launching another major attack inside Afghanistan.

“An attack on US targets during the election season will be a disaster. It will force the Americans to retaliate,” warned one diplomatic source.



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