In U.S., Pakistan meetings, a chance to move past mutual 'trust deficit'

Pakistan's Shah Mahmood Qureshi
Pakistan's Shah Mahmood Qureshi (Andy Wong - AP)
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By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi's commercial flight to the United States stopped in Manchester, England, this week, the U.S. ambassador in London drove four hours to be there for the hour-long layover.

The goal was to avoid any unpleasantness -- including the possibility that British-based U.S. airline security might insist on body-scanning Qureshi -- that might start Wednesday's U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Washington off on the wrong foot.

As Pakistan and the United States struggle to overcome what both characterize as a mutual "trust deficit," the Obama administration hopes that the high-level talks will consolidate the new partnership the president promised last fall in exchange for Pakistan's cooperation in shutting down Taliban and al-Qaeda havens.

Relations have significantly improved in recent months, with a recent tripling of U.S. economic assistance, ongoing Pakistani military offensives against insurgent strongholds in the mountainous region bordering Afghanistan and the recent arrests of senior Taliban figures.

But the partnership remains precarious and prone to suspicion, eruptions and posturing. Both sides are looking for additional commitments, according to officials in Washington and Islamabad who spoke on the condition of anonymity on the eve of the talks.

"The Pakistanis are not stupid," a U.S. official said. "They know this is not China or Taiwan or India, where we have a long-run business investment driving the partnership. We have a war and we need them. They are suspicious that we're going to leave. But they also want to take maximum advantage of their moment in the sun."

The administration has mobilized its senior national security team for the talks, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with top trade, economic and aid officials.

Qureshi heads a Pakistani delegation of senior cabinet officials, as well as the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, who is viewed as driving the nation's agenda. Kiyani arrived Sunday at Central Command headquarters in Tampa for meetings with Gen. David H. Petraeus, and had separate meetings here Monday and Tuesday with Gates and Mullen.

Pakistan is expected to reiterate long-standing requests for armed drone aircraft, officials said, as well for additional helicopters and other equipment. Resentful of U.S. accounting demands, the Pakistani military wants a smoother transfer of money to support its counterterrorism efforts; its civilian government wants more control over economic assistance programs, trade concessions and increased U.S. market access.

Pakistani officials are also seeking reassurance that a substantial U.S. military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after Obama's promised withdrawal begins in mid-2011 and that their traditional adversary, India, will not be allowed to expand its strategic presence there. The Pakistani military and intelligence service see their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban as insurance against the possibility of an unfriendly government in Kabul. In exchange for weakening those ties, they want a seat at the table for any Afghan reconciliation talks, and a guarantee that U.S. commitments will not evaporate if and when the Taliban and al-Qaeda are no longer deemed a U.S. security threat.

"There is a sort of panic in Pakistan that the endgame may be earlier than Pakistan had thought, and that Pakistan isn't positioned well at all to protect its own interests," said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad and a former Pakistani foreign secretary.

Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, is willing to significantly cut back the links, while not severing them, a senior Pakistani official said. "It's not possible to tell [Jalalludin] Haqqani to pack it in," the official said, referring to the leader of one of the main al-Qaeda-allied insurgent groups that is based in Pakistan and active in Afghanistan. "But they can cut off stipends" and limit the group's movements.

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