U.S., Pakistan take steps to ease tensions after Osama bin Laden raid

McClatchy NewspapersMay 16, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United States and Pakistan sought Monday to avert a rupture in relations over the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but it was unclear how much progress they made beyond a vague accord to "work together" on future operations against "high value" militants hiding in Pakistan.

Pakistani civilian and military leaders also agreed in talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., to return the wreckage of a top-secret, radar-evading U.S. helicopter that was damaged and intentionally destroyed during the May 2 assault by U.S. Navy SEALs on bin Laden's hideout.

It was clear, however, that Kerry and his interlocutors made little headway on the core disputes that had plunged relations between the putative allies to their most acrimonious level in 10 years even before the raid that embarrassed and enraged Pakistan's powerful military, which was only informed after it was over.

"It was agreed that all tracks of U.S.-Pakistan engagement need to be revisited," said a joint statement issued after two days of meetings between Kerry, acting as an Obama administration envoy, and Pakistani leaders.

"The make-or-break is real," Kerry told a news conference.

A senior CIA official is to visit this week to discuss differences between the agency and Pakistan's powerful military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, said Pakistani officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Overall relations will be reviewed in an upcoming visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the core of the frictions is the Pakistani military's refusal to close bases on its side of the border from which Afghan insurgents have been fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. Many U.S. officials say that the ISI backs the Afghan groups in a bid to put a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, a charge Islamabad denies.

Pakistan says its forces are overstretched from fighting its own Islamic insurgents, and it insists that the leaders of the Afghan Taliban and allied groups be included in any political settlement to the 10-year Afghan war.

The Obama administration also is questioning how bin Laden could have lived undetected for at least five years in Abbottabad, a city that is home to numerous army facilities and former and serving officers, just 35 miles from Islamabad. The Pakistani military insists says that it was unaware that he was there, and denounced the operation as an affront to the country's sovereignty.

Kerry defended the administration's decision not to inform Pakistan in advance of the raid, saying that few U.S. officials were taken into confidence, either.

"It was not a matter of trust, but imperative of operational security," he said.

Kerry said that he conveyed to Pakistan leaders "as clearly as possible the grave concerns in the United States over Osama bin Laden's presence in Pakistan and the existence here . . . of sanctuaries for our adversaries in Afghanistan."

Many U.S. lawmakers, he said, are "raising tough questions" about the $3 billion in annual security and development funds that the Obama administration is seeking as part of its strategy to stabilize Pakistan, which is close to bankruptcy.

"My goal in coming here is to talk (about) how we manage this important relationship. I am not here to apologize for what I consider a triumph against terrorism," said Kerry, who reiterated that he had seen no evidence of official Pakistani complicity in hiding bin Laden.

Pakistani leaders agreed in talks on Sunday and Monday to a "roadmap" of "specific steps, not words" to rebuild trust with the United States, he said, declining to disclosed details.

Kerry spent four-and-a-half hours Sunday night with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the ISI director. They also were present in talks Kerry held Monday with President Asif Ali Zardari.

His visit was preceded by congressional threats to slash U.S. aid to Pakistan, and by warnings from Pakistan's Parliament that it would halt anti-terror cooperation and close the logistics routes along which a large percentage of supplies are delivered to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. Clinton's long scheduled visit also had been in doubt.

"We are strategic partners with a common enemy in terrorism and extremism," Kerry said. "Both of our countries have sacrificed too many of our citizens and troops to consider abandoning this relationship."

"Far too much is at stake," he said.

The return of the helicopter wreckage, which Kerry said would take place Tuesday, could be a first step toward lowering tensions.

The craft, one of two that flew the SEALs from Afghanistan, used new Stealth technology to evade Pakistani air defenses. The SEALs attempted to destroy it after it crash-landed, but the tail section, with its distinctive, previously unseen rotor, survived. U.S. officials feared Pakistan might share the top-secret technology with others.

The senior CIA official's visit also could mark an important step toward easing frictions. The CIA and the ISI have been at loggerheads since January, when a CIA contractor was arrested for killing two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him. ISI also has sought U.S. agreement to cut the number of CIA operatives in the country.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)

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