Clinton visits Pakistan to firm up new ties


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is watched by Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen (R) as she speaks during a news conference at the US embassy in Islamabad on May 27, 2011. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled halfway around the world Friday for several hours of meetings with Pakistani leaders that she said held promise for a new relationship based on mutual candor and commitment.

“We’ve reached a turning point,” Clinton said. “Osama bin Laden is dead. But al-Qaeda and its syndicate of terror remains a serious threat to us both.”

Clinton’s brief visit — she arrived just after breakfast and was headed home by early afternoon — was part of the Obama administration’s efforts in recent weeks to leverage bin Laden’s killing during a secret raid by U.S. commandos into closer ties with Pakistan, rather than risk it finally severing the always-fragile partnership.

It was far from the first time the United States has announced an attempted reset. But administration officials traveling with Clinton said that the seriousness of the current crisis had forced both sides to confront the possible consequences of an irreconcilable breach and that the talks were marked by a new level of frankness.

As the administration continues its campaign against al-Qaeda, one U.S. official said there was discussion Friday about “specific operations to achieve specific objectives where the United States and Pakistan are together.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss counterterrorism matters.

Another official said the meetings “set the framework for more concrete steps in the coming days. . . . There are a series of fairly specific things we can do jointly.”

For its part, Pakistan said the two countries had agreed to “work together in any future actions against high value targets in Pakistan,” according to a statement issued by the office of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Clinton, who was traveling in Europe earlier this week, decided Tuesday to make the trip only after Pakistan acceded to a list of demands that included allowing CIA access to bin Laden’s residential compound in the city of Abbottabad.

Joined here by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clinton said she expected more “decisive steps” from Pakistan “in the days ahead.”

The United States, Clinton said, has been “clear and consistent in our expectations for this relationship,” including the removal of insurgent safe havens that “continue to operate . . . here in Pakistan.”

“In the past decade,” Clinton said, “many of the most violent leaders have been living in Pakistan,” even as no nation “has sacrificed more lives than Pakistan” in the fight against extremism. She made special note of recent extremist bombings that have taken dozens of Pakistani lives, including the attack this week on a Pakistani naval air base.

Clinton called on Pakistan to support nascent reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban launched several months ago by the United States and Afghanistan. The goal, she said, is “to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda,” a possibility the administration believes has become more likely with bin Laden’s demise, and Pakistan “has a responsibility to help us.”

Pakistan has retained intelligence ties with insurgent groups as a card to play in influencing Afghanistan’s political future, and had been taken aback that reconciliation talks were begun without its direct input and knowledge. In Friday’s meetings, U.S. officials said, it was agreed that Pakistan’s important role would be clarified.

Administration officials also said they listened to Pakistan’s complaints about the slow delivery of promised military assistance and its desire for other forms of assistance that “they can show as proof of this relationship” to the Pakistani public. “We committed to look at that,” one official said.

Clinton and Mullen appeared alone at a news conference after a session with Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who heads the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, and other senior officials. Reporters traveling with Clinton were sequestered in a room and not allowed any contact with the Pakistani officials. Television video taken at the beginning of the session indicated a grim atmosphere and none of the usual pleasantries of diplomatic gatherings. Administration officials later denied there was tension.

Clinton also met alone with Zardari, and she and Mullen held a separate session with Kayani and Pasha.

In public statements since the bin Laden raid, Pakistani officials have expressed consternation at the intelligence failure or collusion implied by the al-Qaeda leader’s discovery in a residential compound in Abbottabad, “just miles from where we are today,” as Clinton put it.

But they have also harshly criticized the raid, conducted without informing Pakistan, as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and an example of U.S. double-dealing. Administration officials have said they understand the domestic imperatives of Pakistan’s anger and the humiliation of its military and intelligence services, but that the time has come to move on.

In some of the most direct language used by administration officials since the current crisis began, Clinton told reporters that it was “up to Pakistan’s leaders” to stop blaming the United States for their country’s myriad economic, governance and security problems.

“Anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make the problems disappear,” she said.

Responding to recent reports that Pakistan has tried to solidify its ties with China and other traditional friends as a hedge against troubles with the United States, Clinton said that Americans provide Pakistan with “more support than Saudi Arabia, China and everybody else combined. . . . I’m not sure many Pakistanis know that.”

She acknowledged that Pakistan is widely unpopular in the United States and said “we both have work to do.”

Clinton repeated the administration’s assurance “there is absolutely no evidence that anyone at high levels of the Pakistani government” knew of bin Laden’s suburban hideout. In the Friday meetings, she said, Pakistani leaders discussed the issue “very frankly” and were “very forthcoming in saying that someone, somewhere, was providing support” for him. The administration, she said, “offered to share whatever information we come across.”

Unlike her previous trips here, when she made numerous public appearances and met with opposition and civil society groups, Clinton’s arrival was not announced in advance and she traveled directly to the presidential palace in a heavily secured convoy after landing at the military base beside Islamabad’s international airport. After her news conference at the U.S. Embassy, she was whisked back to her plane and gone before most Pakistanis were even aware she was here.

An administration official said the groundwork for the trip was laid in a “very calibrated” series of telephone calls and lower-level encounters that began almost immediately after bin Laden’s death. Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was in Islamabad the day after the Abbottabad raid for a previously scheduled trilateral meeting with Afghan and Pakistani officials.

Acting on instructions from Washington, Grossman publicly praised Pakistan’s cooperation on counterterrorism, while privately conveying a broad list of U.S. questions about bin Laden. Grossman was quickly followed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who transmitted still sharper requests from the administration, along with deep U.S. congressional concern about whether to slash U.S. aid to Pakistan.

Grossman returned last week, along with Deputy CIA Director Michael J. Morell, who asked for specific cooperation, including immediate access to the bin Laden compound and to three of bin Laden’s wives and other individuals who were known to have lived or visited there.

Pakistan’s positive response to those demands opened the door for Clinton’s visit, and a team of CIA technicians had arrived at the compound by midweek to look for hidden documents and other al-Qaeda-related intelligence. But both governments, Clinton said, “recognize there is still much more work required, and it is urgent.”

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