Hillary`s iron fist in a velvet glove

July 20, 2010

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Hillary Clinton holds talks with Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad.—AFP

ISLAMABAD US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday went about with her usual charm offensive, but maintained a hawkish position over Pakistan's strategic concerns in a reflection of the deep mistrust that still exists between the two allies.

Secretary Clinton, more importantly for the second day running, handed out a stern warning to Pakistan that any future terrorist attack traced back to its soil would have devastating consequences.

Clinton, who was here to co-chair the second round of Pak-US Strategic Dialogue, had several public engagements — the joint media conference with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a town hall meeting and an interaction with TV anchors.

And where she had good words and cheerful news for Pakistan on new projects, a vivid message running through all her activities was that of clear distrust and divergences over the issues that were close to Islamabad — the civilian nuclear cooperation with China, water disputes with India and Kashmir.

Although the hardline position of the Obama administration on Pakistan's efforts for brokering a deal between Afghanistan's most potent warring group — the Haqqani network — and Kabul appeared to have softened down, there was a clear inclination towards reintegration involving the foot soldiers instead of reconciliation and first defeating the group militarily.

When Pakistan entered the upgraded Strategic Dialogue in March, Islamabad had made clear that it was expecting Washington to deliver tangibly on its strategic concerns, which among others included civilian nuclear energy, role in Afghanistan reconciliation, settlement of disputes with India.

Ahead of the second round, officials appeared to be under a delusion that the US had accommodated their concerns as they regularly referred to the tacit US support for Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation at a recent meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in New Zealand.

But Clinton not only candidly acknowledged that the legacy of suspicion cannot be wished away, she also surprised simpletons in the Pakistani camp by voicing concerns over the Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation, asking it to respond to the worries in the international community.

“NSG has posed a series of questions that need to be answered...there are clearly reservations. Pakistan knows that. I'm looking forward to the answers to the questions,” she said at the joint media conference.

She mentioned some of those concerns at the town hall meeting — Pakistan's history of proliferation and its position on FMCT.

“The problem with A. Q. Khan raises red flags for people around the world, not just in the US, because we can trace the export of nuclear information and material from Pakistan through all kinds of channels to many different countries. That cannot be overlooked or put under the carpet. Pakistan, right now, is the only country standing in the way of the Conference on Disarmament pursuing something called the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty.”

Afghanistan reconciliation

The line taken by the secretary was softer than what senior Obama aides, and more importantly the new ISAF commander in Afghanistan Gen Petraeus, has been articulating recently.

She clearly said that the US would not oppose any reconciliation effort as long as the group has proven sincerity.

Prior to Clinton's visit, the indications from Washington were that there was no room for a political settlement with the Haqqani network.

This position had in fact forced Pakistan to halt its efforts for working out a peace agreement, launched last month, between the Haqqanis and Kabul.

But, surprisingly, Clinton took a rather middle ground, saying “We had never rejected that (reconciliation), but cautioned to enter realistically with respect to sincerity and lasting commitment that is made. We are not rejecting any offer.”

There was a lot of emphasis on caution in her remarks as she said that Pakistan may proceed, but with its 'eyes wide open' given its past failed experience of making peace with militants in Swat.

She also spared no effort in her interaction with anchors to make Pakistani strategists realise that the Haqqani network was a future threat for Pakistan even though it may have not struck inside the county as yet.

In a reference to the reintegration of low and middle ranking cadres, an approach preferred by the US over reconciliation, she suggested there were many young men who were forced into fighting, but could be salvaged.

Besides, there was a clear leaning towards acting militarily against warring factions.

Hillary Clinton also deemed it appropriate to repeat on this occasion the usual American official's catchphrase that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were in hiding in Pakistan, but unlike her last visit she stayed short of accusing Pakistani officials of being aware of their presence.

Nevertheless, she expressed US helplessness at getting hold of them. “We don't have a clear idea how best to get to these people, whom we consider to be our primary enemy. We would like to work more closely together to go after them and capture or kill them.”

Water dispute

The secretary of state, curtly rejecting Pakistan's request for help in solving its water disputes with India, asked it to first manage its own resources before seeking external mediation.

“Pakistan has to get control of the water you currently have, because if you go to a mediation body and say water is being diverted, the first response will be you are not efficiently using the water you have,” she said.

In the Strategic Dialogue document prepared by Pakistan, Islamabad had placed the water crisis with India as the foremost issue of concern.

Pakistan has the world's most extensive system for irrigation and transportation of water, but it has “been neglected and fallen into disuse” and steps need to be taken to address the situation, she said during her interaction with television anchors.

Kashmir

On the longstanding Kashmir dispute, which was one of the issues that caused an impasse in the India-Pakistan trust-building talks last week because of India's refusal to discuss it, the secretary of state indicated that Washington would continue with its hands off policy.

“We can only encourage, we can't solve (the Kashmir issue) because at the end of the day, this is an issue (to which) there is no dictated response. This is what Pakistan must do, this is what India must do.”

However, she said US would like Pakistan and India to sustain their renewed engagement process.

Strategic dialogue

A joint statement issued after the second ministerial meeting said “Secretary Clinton conveyed the United States' support for Pakistan's socio-economic advancement. In this context, she said the United States would, in particular, support programmes and projects in the priority areas of energy and food security and social sector development. Secretary Clinton announced US assistance for signature projects in energy, water and health.”

“The United States will also continue to assist Pakistan in reconstruction and rehabilitation in areas that have been affected by terrorism, especially Swat, Malakand and South Waziristan Agency,” the statement added.

Moreover, the Pakistan government expressed its continued commitment to eliminate extremism and militancy and to undertake legal and structural reforms in order to promote good governance and open the way to economic growth, development and prosperity.