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Q+A: Tricky issues keep U.S.-Pakistan ties on edge

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Representatives from the United States and Pakistan meet this week in Washington for the third round of the so-called strategic dialogue, but the gulf between the two uneasy allies is as wide as it’s ever been.

Mutual distrust and suspicion will make this latest round of talks a high-stakes proposition. But with Pakistan still reeling from devastating August floods and the United States looking to begin a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in 2011, both sides are looking to patch things up despite having very different interests in the region.

Here are some questions and answers about the latest round of talks:


Pakistan most pressing worry is the tentative 2011 timeline for the beginning of an American troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants assurances that its interests in Kabul will be protected -- and Indian influence checked -- while at the same time the United States won’t leave chaos for Pakistan to clean up, as happened in the 1990s after the Soviet pullout.

It’s a tricky balancing act for both countries, and lies at the heart of many of their disputes.

Another, related, concern is the United States’ increased use of unmanned drones. Since the beginning of September, there has been a marked increased in strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, prompting outrage across Pakistan’s political spectrum.

While tacitly supported by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence agencies, they put the civilian government in a bind and leaves it open to criticism that it is too friendly with a country many Pakistanis consider more dangerous than its arch-nemesis, India.

Cross-border incursions by attack helicopters -- one of which killed two Pakistani troops on Sept 30 -- is another source of anger for Pakistan. Islamabad closed a vital supply route for the war effort in Afghanistan for 10 days in protest after the last incursion on Sept 30, and will emphasize that such incidents must not happen again.

Finally, Pakistan wants increased access to American markets, a civilian nuclear deal such as the one India has, and speedier compensation for its costs in the war against militants. The costs of August’s floods, estimated at $9.7 billion by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, will also be a subject with Pakistan hoping for more aid.


The United States wants to leave Afghanistan starting in 2011, but it can’t if Pakistan refuses to crack down on militant safe havens in its tribal areas. Washington has been pressing Islamabad to move against North Waziristan as it has in other parts of the country, but Pakistan continues to drag its heels saying it has to consolidate gains elsewhere and that flood relief has sapped its offensive capacity.

Pakistan’s reluctance stems in part from its alleged support for the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan and an ally of Pakistan going back to the war against the Soviets. Pakistan doesn’t want to lose what it considers a strategic asset for maintaining influence in any future settlement in Kabul. The United States, however, considers the group an ally of al Qaeda and irreconcilable with the current Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

Washington’s other issues with Pakistan is its unwillingness to support itself by broadening its tax base and a too-great emphasis on confronting India rather than its homegrown militants. It is also concerned about the security of its nuclear arsenal and harbors lingering suspicions about its past record of nuclear proliferation through the network of Abdul Qadeer Khan.


In this session? Not likely. While the second round of talks, held this past summer in Islamabad, were almost heady in their optimism, with $500 million in development projects announced amid a spirit of goodwill, this session will be about repairing damage.

“The level of confidence between the two must improve,” said military analyst and retired general Talat Masood.

“Pakistan must be assured that America has an interest in Pakistan’s stability. And Pakistanis have to prove to the Americans that they’re not playing a double game. I think this is the whole story at the moment.”

Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider, editing by Philip Barbara