ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s powerful army is likely to dominate key security issues for the country as senior government and military officials meet their American counterparts for important talks in Washington this week.
In the first ministerial-level strategic talks scheduled on Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will focus on security cooperation between the two uneasy allies to fight Islamist militants.
The talks will also tackle U.S. help to bolster Pakistan’s weak economy and help it overcome growing water and energy crises.
However, analysts say it is the head of Pakistan’s army, General Ashfaq Kayani, also attending the talks, who has set the agenda for Pakistan on security-related matters.
“In strategic dialogue, security-related issues have always been handled by the military,” said security and political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
In the run-up to the strategic talks on Wednesday, Kayani has held met U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, and other senior U.S. military officials.
The army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 61 years of independence, has traditionally dominated the country’s key foreign policy matters such as relations with rival India, military ties with the United States and Afghan policy.
Although Pakistan returned to full civilian rule with the 2008 resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief, analysts said the army had not given up its dominance of key security issues.
“This is not a new thing in Pakistan,” Rizvi said. “The military has always set the agenda for security matters... civilians cannot make unilateral decisions on these issues.”
The Pakistani team is expected to present a lengthy “wish list” at the Washington meeting aimed at seeking expanded military and economic cooperation from the United States.
It may include a request for helicopter gunships and drone technology to fight al Qaeda and Taliban militants operating in its border regions, along with increased intelligence sharing.
According to official figures, the United States has given Pakistan $15.4 billion since 2002, about two-thirds security-related.
While Foreign Minister Qureshi is officially leading the Pakistani side in the talks, analysts say Kayani’s presence reflects how much importance the United States attaches to strong relations with Pakistan’s army despite the mutual distrust.
U.S. officials have complained that some elements in Pakistani intelligence agencies are covertly supporting the Taliban to use them as a proxy to secure influence in Afghanistan and keep old enemy India out after any U.S. pullout.
The Pakistan army’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been a key player in nurturing Islamist militants first for the U.S.-backed jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then for fighting Indian rule in the Kashmir region.
It has also been a key backer of the Taliban until Pakistan officially abandoned support for the radical Islamic movement after joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism in 2001, although some U.S. officials have said covert support continues.
Such complaints have largely been addressed since Kayani appointed his close confidante, Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha, as head of the ISI in September 2008.
Kayani himself was ISI chief before he was elevated to the post of army chief in 2007.
“Security is the most important priority for both Pakistan and the United States,” said Talat Masood, a retired general turned analyst.
“Americans also want to have a strong relationship with the army because security policy and its implementation largely falls in the domain of the army,” he said. “Therefore Kayani has an important role to play in these talks.”
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Raju Gopalakrishnan