U.S. Sees Hope in Pakistan Requests for Help
Pakistan sent a 56-page document to the U.S. ahead of strategic talks scheduled for Wednesday, seeking expanded military and economic aid in what some American officials believe is an implicit offer to crack down in return on the Afghan Taliban.
The previously undisclosed document includes requests ranging from U.S. help to alleviate Pakistan's chronic water and power shortages to pleas for surveillance aircraft and support in developing the country's civilian nuclear program.
U.S. officials say the document and the talks surrounding it could help redefine one of America's thorniest foreign-policy relationships, if it leads to a serious Pakistani clampdown on the Taliban.
The Taliban uses Pakistan, a U.S. ally, as its rear base in its fight against American and allied forces in neighboring Afghanistan, and has often relied on clandestine support from elements of Pakistan's national security establishment. But in the past few months, Pakistan has rounded up several senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban on its soil, and last year it began a series of offensives against the Pakistan offshoot of the Afghan movement.
U.S. officials are keen to see those moves broadened as a key to shifting the momentum of the Afghan war. "Right now, we're looking at something that could deliver a big part of our success in Afghanistan," said a senior U.S. military official, speaking of the document and talks.
The document outlines a range of aid Pakistan is seeking from the U.S., say American and Pakistani officials who have seen it or been briefed on its contents. A high-level meeting between senior Pakistani and U.S. officials in Washington on Wednesday aims to stitch together their fraying alliance.
Many of Pakistan's requests build on longstanding demands for more U.S. assistance. But officials on both sides say that by detailing them in a single comprehensive document, Islamabad is trying to signal its willingness to align its interests with those of Washington, its vision for a partnership—and its price.
Among the requests is greater cooperation between its spy agency and U.S. intelligence outfits, more helicopter gunships and other military hardware needed to battle its own Taliban insurgency, and improved surveillance technology, such as pilotless drone aircraft.
Pakistan also wants a civilian nuclear energy cooperation deal with the U.S., and a role in any future peace talks between the Western-backed Afghan government and the Taliban.
Many U.S. officials remain wary of such deals with Pakistan. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., Pakistan has received more than $17.5 billion in U.S. aid, the majority earmarked for the military and security, while insisting it was doing all it could to combat the Taliban and its Islamist allies.
U.S. officials have complained that Pakistan's intelligence services continued to offer clandestine support for the Taliban, which it has long viewed as a proxy it could use to secure its influence in Afghanistan and keep archrival India out after an eventual U.S. withdrawal.
"Everything with the Pakistanis is two steps forward and one step back," said a senior U.S. military official involved in talks with the Pakistanis. "Anybody who expects straight linear progress out of a strategic dialogue between these two nations is really kind of naïve. What it will be is a step forward and then we'll see where they go with it."
Pakistan's fears of being outflanked by India, which has forged close ties to the Afghan government, are reflected in the document's indirect language about regional security issues, Pakistani officials say. The document raises concerns about India's effort to modernize its military, in part through buying U.S. equipment and weapons. It urges Washington to take a direct role in reviving the peace process between India and Pakistan, which stalled after the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai.
If officials this week can begin setting the U.S. relationship with Pakistan on a footing of greater trust and military cooperation, it would mark a success for the Obama administration's foreign policy at a time when key relations with other nations, from ally Israel to nemesis Iran, are strained.
In response to the document, officials say the Pentagon is considering up to $500 million in additional military aid to Pakistan, paid through the Coalition Support Fund, an account used to reimburse Pakistan for military activities taken in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. provided $2.8 billion in economic and security aid to Islamabad.
A spokesman for Pakistan's military, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, confirmed the document's existence and the military's input, but he declined to discuss its contents. Aides to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon's primary interlocutor with Pakistan's military leadership, confirmed his staff had received the document and were analyzing it.
Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House looked forward to this week's talks, but would not comment on any specific proposals made during meetings between "scores" of senior U.S. officials and Pakistani counterparts over the last year.
"During the course of those discussions, a considerable number of ideas, initiatives, and opportunities have been brought up by both sides," Mr. Hammer said. "We are not prepared to comment on any one set of ideas other than to say that we are encouraged by an open and robust dialogue."
The document comes out of months of delicate and often secret negotiations between top political and military officials from both countries., to continue Wednesday at a so-called Strategic Dialogue in Washington. The meeting is to cover issues from the fight against Islamist militants to bolstering Pakistan's struggling economy.Among officials slated to attend are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the head of Pakistan's army.
"Pakistan and the United States have been partners and allies without always having a complete understanding of each other's strategic and security priorities," said Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, in a telephone interview. "This time we want to build an understanding that can serve as a foundation for the day-to-day relationship."
It remains unclear what has fueled Pakistan's recent apparent shift on the Taliban. Some Western officials believe recent coalition gains in Afghanistan have prompted the Pakistanis to hedge in a new direction. Afghan officials and other Western officials say the Pakistanis may be trying to take control of nascent Taliban peace efforts by detaining the most pragmatic insurgent leaders.
The senior U.S. military official involved in recent talks with Pakistani officials , including Gen. Kayani,said the new seriousness in Pakistan's approach seems to be part of a realization that the U.S. has a limited time frame for directly assisting Islamabad. The official said Gen. Kayani in recent talks has focused on getting U.S. assistance to efforts that the Afghan and Pakistani governments can sustain as U.S. forces and investment in Afghanistan wane.
Some of Pakistan's requests are likely non-starters. India has steadfastly refused any outside mediation in its decades-long dispute with Pakistan. And U.S. officials say a civilian nuclear deal would be a tough sell given Pakistan's history of nuclear weapons proliferation.
To assuage the Pakistanis, the State Department has suggested setting up a bilateral working group to discuss the issue, in essence pushing a decision into the distant future. But U.S. officials, especially in those in the Pentagon, are eager to encourage Pakistan's re-engagement after nearly two years of growing tension between the allies,and say many of the other requests may be doable.
The U.S. may, for example, be willing to give Pakistan drone aircraft, although not the high-end, armed Predator and Reaper drones that have been used by the Central Intelligence Agency to kill hundreds of militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, according to a U.S. official.
The official said Pakistan already gets a few hours a week of surveillance time on those drones, and they're often "not looking at the same targets we'd necessarily want to be looking at."
"We want the U.S. to recognize Pakistan's nuclear status and give us assurances not to undermine the (weapons) program," said a senior Pakistani military officer who serves as an aide to Gen. Kayani. "Energy security is crucial, and we need U.S. help."
Among the proposals the Pentagon is considering is asking Pakistan to allow the U.S. to support expanded Pakistani counterterrorism efforts within their country. Currently, about 150 U.S. Special Operations forces are in Pakistan training the Pakistani military in counterinsurgency tactics. In addition, the U.S. may press the Pakistani government to end what they view as a negative information campaign against the U.S. by elements of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence directorate.