March 28, 2010 / 6:36 AM / 10 years ago

Better Pakistan-U.S. ties underpinned by Afghan aims

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Buoyant U.S.-Pakistani relations are being underpinned by converging interests over Afghanistan but strains could emerge if Pakistan’s expectations for U.S. help are not met and it feels it is being used.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all smiles after their recent high-level talks in Washington aimed at reversing tempestuous ties between the allies.

The talks covered issues from security to energy and water projects, and while little in the way of new U.S. help emerged, a heady tone was set, largely because of some common Afghan aims, analysts said.

“There is this over-arching convergence, we’re on the same track, the same page,” said Ayaz Amir, a political analyst and opposition party member of parliament.

Pakistan sees the United States as desperate to get out of Afghanistan and sooner or later bound to have to enter some sort of peace deal with the Taliban.

Pakistan, battling its homegrown Taliban, is also looking for a negotiated Afghan settlement and wants to oversee any peace process to ensure a friendly government in Kabul and to minimize the influence of old rival India.

Not only is Pakistan the main conduit for U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan, its sway over the Taliban could be key in nudging their old allies to talk.

The announcement last month of the arrest of a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a joint operation with U.S. agents in the city of Karachi, has illustrated the crucial role Pakistan can play.

“Pakistan feels it is key to the entire situation, that without the role which the Pakistani army is playing, the whole American military presence in Afghanistan is undermined,” Amir said.

“HIGH AND DRY”

Many Pakistanis believe that the United States has used Pakistan as a tool to promote its interests and left the country in the lurch once those interests were served.

Bitter memories of the United States walking away from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and leaving the country in chaos are still raw in Pakistan.

The United States has stressed long-term commitment, underscored by a $7.5 billion aid package.

As well as aid for its investment-starved economy, nuclear-armed Pakistan wants civilian nuclear cooperation with the United States and is pushing for the same kind of deal that India negotiated. But the United States is reluctant to discuss such cooperation.

Pakistan also wants the United States to press India to resume a peace process suspended after Pakistan-based militants attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008.

While Pakistan realizes U.S. involvement in the dispute over the Kashmir region is unlikely because of Indian objections, Pakistan hopes U.S. pressure will bring India to talk on other disputes including the sharing of cross-border river waters.

Ties between Pakistan and the United States should develop as long as both sides feel they are getting what they want, said analyst and former government minister Shafqat Mahmood.

“The relationship is likely to grow but the devil is in the detail,” Mahmood said, referring to upcoming talks at which U.S. aid plans help will be fleshed out.

“I would only call it a good beginning.”

While U.S. attention is focused on Afghanistan, it is also worried about militants in Pakistan and will want to see action.

In particular, the United States wants Pakistan to rein in the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based faction responsible for the Mumbai attacks.

The LeT, one of the largest and best-funded militant groups in South Asia, was nurtured by Pakistan’s main Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency to fight India in Kashmir.

There’s suspicion the powerful Pakistani military, which sets security and regional policy, still sees the militants as “strategic assets” in the event of war with India.

“Pakistan will have to make up its mind, that it can’t use jihadi groups as proxies anymore,” said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Pakistanis are looking anxiously at the July 2011 deadline set by U.S. President Barack Obama for U.S. forces to start pulling out of Afghanistan, fearing that will result in waning interest in them.

“There is this underlying unease that after all we are doing, after all the key role vis a vis Afghanistan, that the Americans are really not giving enough and we’ll again be left high and dry,” said Amir.

Editing by Sugita Katyal

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