ISLAMABAD Pakistan denied media reports on Wednesday that it was lobbying Afghanistan to drop its alliance with Washington and look to Islamabad and Beijing to forge a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuild its economy.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani "bluntly" told Afghan President Hamid Karzai to "forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country," according to Afghans present at an April 16 meeting between the two men.
"Reports claiming Gilani-Karzai discussion about Pakistan advising alignment away fm US are inaccurate," Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, wrote on his Twitter feed.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua told Reuters: "It is the most ridiculous report we have come across."
The Journal reported that Pakistan's apparent bid to separate Afghanistan from the United States is a clear sign that tensions between Washington and Islamabad could threaten attempts to end the war in Afghanistan on favorable terms for the West.
The United States plans to start removing combat troops in July, with the bulk of them scheduled to be home by the end of 2014. Pakistan hopes to fill any power vacuum the Americans leave behind, considering Afghanistan to be within its traditional sphere of influence and a bulwark against its arch-rival India.
Pakistan's military has had long-running ties to the Afghan Taliban and has repeatedly said that the road to a settlement of the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan runs through Islamabad.
Its prior support for the Afghan Taliban movement in the 1990s gives it an outsized influence among Afghanistan's Pashtuns, who makes up about 42 percent of the total population and who maintain close ties with their Pakistani fellow tribesmen.
Pakistan maintains that influence, the United States believes, by having its top intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), keep ties with al Qaeda-allied militants operating on both sides of the border.
The Journal reported that Pakistan no longer has an incentive to allow the United States a leading role in what it considers its own backyard.
At a rally to his party's supporters on Wednesday, Gilani said Pakistan would maintain relations with the United States based on "mutual respect and interests."
However, he added: "We'll not compromise on national interests. We are not ready to compromise on our sovereignty, defense, integrity and self-respect, no matter how powerful the other is."
Pakistan is now looking to secure its own interests in Afghanistan at the expense of the United States. Kabul and Islamabad also agreed at the meeting to include Pakistani military and intelligence officials in a commission seeking peace with the Taliban, giving Pakistan's security establishment a formal role in any talks.
"This is part of General Kayani's relentless outreach to President Karzai ever since the Obama administration announced withdrawal plans," C. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign affairs expert, told Reuters, referring to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
U.S. ties with Karzai have soured since his election was called into question and over corruption. Relations with Pakistan have suffered over covert U.S. actions, including missile attacks by drone aircraft that Washington says are necessary to hunt down al Qaeda and the Taliban, and which Pakistan sees as a violation of its sovereignty.
The Journal said the leaks about the April 16 meeting could be part of a campaign by a pro-U.S. faction around Karzai to convince the United States to move more quickly to secure a strategic partnership agreement, which would spell out the relationship between Kabul and Washington after 2014.
"The longer they wait ... the more time Pakistan has to secure its interests," one of the pro-U.S. Afghan officials told the Journal.
American officials are aware of the meeting, the paper reported, and assumed the leak was a negotiating tactic to secure more U.S. aid to Afghanistan after 2014. The idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan "was fanciful at best," the officials said.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Andrew Marshall)