WASHINGTON — The U.S. opened high-level talks Wednesday with Pakistan on expanding the two country's close but often stormy relations and winning Islamabad's help in extricating U.S. forces from the nearly nine-year-old war in neighboring Afghanistan.
In the first sign of an improving atmosphere, the Obama administration agreed to accelerate the payment of $2 billion in military aid to cover the costs of Pakistan's military operations against al Qaida-allied insurgents in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
"It is . . . the start of something new, a new phase in our relationship," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared as she welcomed Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to the two-day "strategic dialogue" in a glittering State Department conference room.
A number of senior U.S. officials, however, remain skeptical that Pakistan's powerful military can be persuaded to take the step that's vital to establishing closer ties: ending its support for the Afghan Taliban and for Islamic groups that it's long used to attack rival India and exert influence in Afghanistan.
Closing the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in the tribal area, however, is critical to the success of President Barack Obama's plan to stabilize Afghanistan and to start the withdrawal of the more than 100,000 U.S. troops who'll be deployed there by later this year.
Obama's announcement that he'll begin a U.S. military pullout by July 2011, however, could make the Pakistani military even more reluctant to abandon its longtime surrogates, for fear that archrival India would try to fill the resulting vacuum and encircle Pakistan.
Islamabad is already concerned that Washington, stressed by two wars and the U.S. financial crisis, will abandon the region as it did after the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan battling its own al Qaida-backed Islamist insurgency, dire energy and water shortages and other economic woes.
Pakistan denies that it supports Afghan Taliban leaders, although it recently arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second highest ranking Afghan Taliban leader, and several associates in the southern port city of Karachi.
Clinton reassured Qureshi that the U.S. wants a long-term "partnership" with Pakistan, saying that the U.S. recognizes "that Pakistan's stability and prosperity is in the best interests of people everywhere."
She acknowledged that thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in extremist violence and pledged "our full support" for Islamabad's struggle to crush the al Qaida-allied insurgency based in the tribal region.
She conceded, however, that it won't be easy to surmount the decades of distrust that have dogged U.S.-Pakistani relations.
That distrust has been fed by Pakistani diversions of technology to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, U.S. sanctions imposed after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, U.S. drone attacks in the tribal area that have killed civilians, and a popular perception in Pakistan that the insurgency there is the result of the U.S. presence in neighboring Afghanistan or an American-led crusade against Islam.
"Our countries have had our misunderstandings and disagreements in the past, and there are sure to be more disagreements in the future as there are between any friends or family members," Clinton told the dozens of U.S. and Pakistani cabinet members and senior civilian and defense officials seated in three rows along a large rectangular table.
They included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Pakistani counterpart, Ahmad Muhktar, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who as Pakistan's chief of army staff is the country's most powerful man.
Qureshi agreed that the relationship has seen "engagement as well as estrangement."
But, he said, a stronger partnership "is good for Pakistan, good for the United States and good for international peace and prosperity."
"Now is a time to look forward," Qureshi declared.
Both sides joined working groups on cooperation in agriculture, education, and other areas, with the Pakistanis seeking details on how a five-year $7.5 billion package of non-military aid approved last year by Congress would be spent.
An all-out effort by the Obama administration has helped to improve ties between the two countries, encouraged the Pakistani military to launch major offensives against extremists in the tribal area and paved the way to the current talks.
However, U.S. officials said that Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and other members of his inner circle continue to direct the Afghan insurgency from Pakistan, as do allied extremist groups such as the Haqqani network.
Moreover, leaders of Pakistani militant groups that fight in Indian Kashmir give public speeches calling for more attacks like the 2008 terrorist assault on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.
Before the talks, Pakistan submitted a 56-page strategy document containing a "wish list" for more U.S. aid, including drone aircraft, new helicopters and a civilian nuclear cooperation program similar to the one with India.
Qureshi said that he hoped that "non-discriminatory access to vital energy resources will also be available to us so that we, too, can pursue our economic and industrial development plans."
The U.S. was expected to provide more help for Pakistan's conventional power sector.
However, there was almost no chance that U.S. civilian nuclear aid would be forthcoming because of Islamabad's poor proliferation record and its refusal to allow U.S. intelligence to question A.Q. Khan, the physicist who founded the Pakistani nuclear program and provided knowhow to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
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