As parliament gears up for what is expected to be a vigorous debate on the re-evaluation of ties with the United States this month, it seems that the two countries have gotten the ball rolling on various fronts to reboot their frayed strategic relationship, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
A senior American military commander is expected to travel to Pakistan this month in what Obama administration officials say is the first step toward thawing a strategic relationship that has, in effect, been at a standstill since the cross-border attacks by NATO aircraft on Pakistani positions along the Afghan border in November last year.
The head of the US Central Command Gen James N Mattis will meet the Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to discuss the investigations of the Salala attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as well as new border coordination procedures to prevent a recurrence of the episode. General Mattis’s visit was to have begun on Thursday, but has been postponed by at least a week pending the debate in parliament over a new security policy toward the United States.
State Department supports apology
On an even more positive note for the Pakistan Army and ties between the disenchanted allies, the State Department is supporting a proposal circulating in the administration for the United States to issue a formal apology for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in the Nov 26 airstrike by Nato gunships.
“We’ve felt an apology would be helpful in creating some space,” said an American official who has been briefed on the State Department’s view and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, would not comment on the proposal on Monday, NYT reported.
Meanwhile, in a sign that the Nato blockade may be lifted, Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar on Tuesday voiced his support for the reopening of the Afghan border crossings to Nato troop supplies after negotiating a better deal with the coalition.
The Associated Press quoted Mukhtar as saying to a local television channel that the government should negotiate new “terms and conditions” with Nato, then reopen the border.
He did not provide specific details. But other officials have suggested that the government levy additional fees on the coalition for using the route since the heavy trucks cause damage to the roads.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar had said that she didn’t think it would be much of a problem to reopen the route after the Parliament vote. The defence minister echoed this view, saying “I think the people who are deciding, who are giving recommendations, will make the right decision.”
Kick starting negotiations
The starting point for the new relationship between Pakistan and the US is expected to be General Mattis’s visit, the stated purpose of which is to formally present to Pakistan the Central Command’s findings in the Nov 26 episode. The Pakistan Army last month issued a scornful rejection of the American report: it stated the report was “factually not correct”; accused the United States of failing to share information “at any level”; and denied any responsibility for the bloody tragedy.
Behind the scenes, however, General Mattis will try to learn what is possible in the relationship regarding training, arms sales and improving border coordination centres. Depending on how the visit goes, other American officials, including Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, could follow.
The parliamentary debate on relations with the US has also become a critical step in starting negotiations. Once the policy document, compiled by a parliamentary committee, has been debated in Parliament, government officials will sit down with American diplomats to hammer out the contours of the new relationship – a process that diplomats say is likely to last many months. But some things are expected to be resolved immediately, NYT reported.
The director of the State Department’s policy planning office, Jake Sullivan, signaled last month that relations could improve soon, NYT reported.
Speaking to foreign journalists in Washington on Jan 25, Sullivan said, “We will see over the course of the next several weeks an intensive period of work to deal with the very real issues that continue to exist between the United States and Pakistan in our relationship.”
American officials in Washington said the thaw had already started, unofficially. Relations between the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) had slowly improved since the all-time low after the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May, they said.
Intelligence officials from the two countries have resumed discussions about “joint targeting,” officials here added — probably a reference to CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt. On the military side, Pakistan’s generals had started discussions over border coordination and the resumption of Coalition Support Funds, the main United States subsidy to Pakistani military operations, NYT reported.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2012.