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PAKISTAN: Diplomatic Tensions over U.S. Talks with Militant Groups

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Oct 24 2011 (IPS) - Assurances by visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here late last week that Pakistan has a major role to play in future peace talks in Afghanistan have helped ease growing tensions between Islamabad and Washington.

But her warning that Washington expects the Pakistani army to act against the militant Haqqani network in North Waziristan within weeks, rather than months or years, has revived questions about the degree to which Washington respects Pakistani sovereignty.

Clinton confirmed Friday that U.S. officials had reached out to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network about possible peace talks and urged Pakistan to push ahead with engaging the Taliban in talks and negotiations as the “key” to ending the war in Afghanistan.

“We don’t know if this will work, but we believe strongly we must try it,” she said Friday.

However, long-standing U.S. accusations that Pakistan has served as a ‘safe haven’ for the Haqqanis, a Taliban affiliate operating on either side of the border, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Pakistani experts and officials.

“There is a huge gap of trust between the two countries engaged in the war against terrorism,” Muhammad Jamil, professor of political science at Government College Mardan, told IPS.

“Ever since Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was assassinated in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan soured to the point of no return,” he said, referring to the U.S.’s unsanctioned assassination mission in Abbottabad, about 120 kilometres from Pakistan’s capital.

Last month, former Navy Admiral and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen alleged that Pakistani “duplicity” has not only jeopardised the frayed U.S.- Pakistani partnership against terrorism, but also imperiled the outcome of the decade-old war in Afghanistan.

He went a step further by accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) of supporting the Haqqani Network in orchestrating the Sep. 13 assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, as well as the Sep. 11 truck bomb that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers in the Afghan capital. In fact, Mullen charged that the “Haqqani Network is a veritable arm of the ISI”.

The government of Pakistan has rejected outright these claims of complicity with militants, insisting that it is itself the victim of terrorism, having lost 35,000 people – including 5,000 soldiers – in clashes with the Taliban since 2004.

“We are trying our level best to eliminate the militants,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told a joint press conference with Clinton Friday.

“The U.S. should trust Pakistan’s efforts to end terrorism, which has put millions of lives at risk around the globe,” she said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters last week that the Haqqani network is a predominantly Afghan group and denied it had sanctuaries inside Pakistani territory.

Jamil stressed that he saw no indication in the near future of improvements in relations between the two countries.

“The U.S. wants Pakistan to share intelligence regarding the militants’ hideouts, which the latter is not ready to do. Once (Pakistan) hands out information about militants’ sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), then the U.S. will use its time- tested weapon of drones in unilateral action in those areas,” he added.

On Sep. 29, in an effort to take matters into its own hands, the government of Pakistan called for an All Parties Conference, which adopted a joint resolution refuting all U.S. allegations regarding the Haqqani network.

The conference also called for revisiting Pakistan’s policy towards the war on terror and advocated for dialogue with the Haqqani network and other Taliban factions.

“We have the right to defend our sovereignty. The U.S. drone attacks amount to encroachment on Pakistan sovereignty, which is an international crime,” Imran Khan, head of the Justice Movement in Pakistan, told IPS.

“If the U.S. can enter into talks with the Taliban, why can’t we?” Khan argued. He added that the time for negotiations was long past due, since military operations against the insurgents in tribal areas have been “fruitless” since 2004.

On Sep. 22, a U.S. Senate Committee voted to make one billion dollars worth of aid to Pakistan conditional upon tough action against militant groups, particularly the Haqqani network.

The move highlighted the extent of the co-dependent relationship between the two countries.

“The U.S seeks Pakistan’s cooperation on a host of issues from the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, to (tackling) the Haqqani network, to solving the problem of improvised explosive devices on both sides of the border,” Clinton told a news conference on Sep. 22.

“The U.S. has no choice except to deal with Pakistan diplomatically,” Mohammad Jaffar, a professor of international relations at the University of Peshawar, told IPS.

“Despite being the sole superpower in the world, it is confronted with severe problems in Afghanistan, where 90,000 of its soldiers have been engaged in clashes with the Taliban,” he added.

“Now the ball remains in Pakistan’s court whether it wants to resolve the prolonged war with insurgents through military means or go for talks with them,” he said.

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