Pakistan and US at odds on Obama’s war policy By Sajjad Malik

Islamabad, April 16 (Inditop) President Barack Obama’s policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its focus on eliminating militant hideouts in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal border regions, has failed to win over many policymakers in Islamabad.

Sharp differences between the two key allies have surfaced since Obama unveiled the strategy March 27 and, contrary to the past, the Pakistani side is not keeping the disagreements secret.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi openly complained of a “trust deficit” between the two countries at a joint press conference with visiting US special representative Richard Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen in Islamabad last week.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week echoed that view when he met US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry. Gilani called for an end to drone attacks on Pakistani soil, one of the key points of divergence between the two countries.

Tactically advantageous, the intensified campaign of missile attacks by unmanned aircraft has killed dozens of second-tier Al Qaeda militants and Taliban fighters. But it has also caused large numbers of civilian casualties, fuelling public anger.

“The drone attacks and consequent collateral damage is impeding our efforts to eradicate the menace of terrorism and extremism,” Gilani told Kerry. But the warning is not expected to impress Obama administration.

“We don’t see any change in US’ policy no matter how strongly Pakistan may protest. The US defence officials find drone strikes a handy tool against militants targeting their forces in Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal belt,” defence analyst and retired General Talat Masood said.

Pakistan’s defence establishment is also unhappy with what it calls a sustained campaign in US media, think tanks and selective leaks by “senior US officials” to leading newspapers that portray the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a rogue organisation that secretly supports Taliban insurgents.

Holbrooke denied that his country had launched such a campaign but he said there were “challenges” about ISI’s past connections with the militants. “I think it is important that that support ends,” he said.

Pakistan’s spy agencies supported the jihadists long after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in late 1980s, and used them in their proxy war against their traditional rival India in the disputed Kashmir region – as well as to install a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul.

Washington wants to change the dynamics but its efforts are complicated by its persistence to carve out a larger role for India in Afghanistan without resolving core the issue of Kashmir, over which Pakistan and India have fought three wars during the last 64 years.

Pakistan believes that will promote Indian plans for “regional hegemony” and jeopardise Islamabad’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. With a clear sense of loathing, a Pakistani foreign office spokesman last week criticised Holbrooke’s description of India as “leader of the region”.

Another thorny issue is the conditions Washington is planning to attach to the forthcoming $1.5 billion in annual financial aid for next five years. Legislation pending in the US Congress requires Pakistan to show seriousness in its fight against militancy and stop its spy agencies from supporting militants.

“The aid with strings attached would fail to generate the desired good results in Pakistan,” Gilani warned in his meeting with Kerry.

But those differences are not likely to bring radical change in the alliance between the two countries.

“Pakistan is fully aware of the threat posed to its existence by the terrorism and extremism and it knows very well that cooperation with the US is in its own interest,” Masood said.

He hoped for a positive outcome when the sides sit together in trilateral talks with Afghanistan next month to smooth over their differences and pave the way for smooth implementation of the new US plan for the region.