WASHINGTON — If Osama bin Laden is really living comfortably in a house in northwest Pakistan, can we finally get him?
One might assume that the question would come up during this week’s three-day “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Pakistan – given the news out of NATO earlier this week that the Al Qaeda leader is no longer believed to be roughing it in a remote, no-man’s-land cave.
But instead, topic No. 1 at the three days of Washington meetings that begin today is likely to be relations-mending.
US-Pakistan ties, already roiled by frequent US drone attacks in Pakistani territory, suffered an abrupt setback over a NATO helicopter attack on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border late last month that killed several Pakistani soldiers. The US apologized for the incident, but not before the Khyber pass border crossing was closed and dozens of bottled-up trucks transporting fuel and supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan were torched.
It is in the still-touchy aftermath of the border incident that the US is expected to offer Pakistan a multiyear, multibillion-dollar security package aimed at enhancing the ability of Pakistani security forces to take on domestic Islamist militants.
The US already offers Pakistan about $1.5 billion a year in military assistance through what is now a year-to-year program. The proposal to be presented at this week’s meetings is for a package of military hardware, training, and counterinsurgency materials stretching over several years – something the Pakistanis have been seeking for a while. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had said at the last session of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Islamabad in July that the US was “working on a multiyear package.”
Such a package for security assistance would presumably mirror a five-year, $7.5 billion development assistance package for Pakistan that the US approved last year.
US officials acknowledge that Pakistani security forces are stretched thin – especially after the summer’s devastating floods – and could use more supplies and training if they are to go after militants in their havens. But at the same time, US officials continue to harbor suspicions that some of the Taliban and other militant groups, in particular those involved in fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, continue to enjoy protection from certain elements of the Pakistani security structure.
The claim from a NATO official about Mr. bin Laden, reported by CNN, included the widely held contention that the Al Qaeda leadership is protected by elements within the Pakistani intelligence services.
Earlier this month, the White House submitted an assessment of Pakistan to Congress that is critical of the country’s antimilitancy campaign and suggests its existing capacities would allow it to do much more to confront the Taliban and Al Qaeda. A softer version of that assessment was offered at the State Department this week, when spokesman P.J. Crowley commended Pakistan for “aggressive action within its borders” before adding, “Clearly, this is an ongoing threat, and more needs to be done.”
At a State Department briefing Tuesday, the deputy US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, said that while the Pakistanis have taken “some substantial steps” against organizations threatening the security of both countries, the US will call on Pakistan to do more – such as taking its campaign into North Waziristan.
Confronted with America’s you-can-do-more attitude, the Pakistanis are responding with requests of their own. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has a list of things he says the US could do to build his country’s confidence in the US partnership. Among them are a civilian nuclear energy deal like the one the US has signed with India, a wider door for Pakistani products to enter the US, and more US pressure on India to resolve issues of interest to both India and Pakistan, such as Kashmir.
Mr. Qureshi, who is to meet with Secretary Clinton on Friday, has already previewed the proudly independent tone he is likely to employ when meeting with senior Obama administration officials.
“We are an ally, not a satellite,” Qureshi said Monday in comments at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Mass. “We have to protect our borders. You have to respect our sovereignty,” he said, alluding to the recent helicopter border shooting.
Qureshi said the “trust deficit” affecting relations between the two countries has been furthered by such interventions in Pakistani territory, although he acknowledged that the outpouring of US relief assistance after the summer flooding was viewed much more positively.