ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Government officials often learn about Pakistani military plans the same way the media does — from news releases, a U.S. military official acknowledged on Thursday, in a sobering snapshot of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid and a charm offensive that included Thursday’s trip by Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ to Islamabad, a significant “trust deficit” is putting distance between the two militaries.
“The Pakistan military - they don’t share with us in advance their plans and intentions,” the official told reporters in Pakistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“We’re reliant on what their public press statements are, just like everybody else is... Any question about the future, honestly, we find out about the same time everybody else does, because they don’t tell us in advance what they intend to do.”
The official said he was certain the “trust problem” was a major factor, although he and a U.S. defense official added that secrecy has its advantages when launching offensives.
Closer cooperation, U.S. officials say, will be key to President Barack Obama’s regional strategy to tackle al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. officials have flagged increased communication across the Afghan-Pakistan border as a sign of improving relations.
Gates, just hours after arriving in Islamabad, faced withering questions from Pakistani media that exposed many of the suspicions about U.S. intentions in the region. He said some of them were nothing more than “conspiracy theories.”
“We hear some of these rumors and I’ll address them directly: We have no intention or desire to take over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,” Gates, sitting inside the well-fortified U.S. embassy compound, told the interviewer.
“We have no desire to occupy any part of Pakistan or split up any part of Pakistan. We have no intent to split the Islamic world. And I can keep going because we’re as aware of these conspiracy theories as much as anyone and they’re all nonsense.”
The United States used Pakistan as a staging area to help supply Afghan fighters, who drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989. It subsequently cut off military ties with Pakistan over its nuclear program and largely retreated from the region, leaving many Pakistanis and Afghans feeling abandoned.
A big source of friction is strikes by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on militants in northwest Pakistan.
Pakistan, which publicly calls the drones a violation of its sovereignty, has called for drone technology for itself.
Gates said on Thursday that the United States was considering providing unarmed “eyes in the sky” drone aircraft to Pakistan’s military for surveillance operations. U.S. officials told reporters he was referring to a contract the Pentagon is finalizing for 12 “Shadow” drones.
“We are in partnership with the Pakistani military and we are working to give them their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles, both aircraft and drones,” Gates said.
A U.S. defense official said Washington was also looking into providing Pakistan piloted surveillance aircraft.
Editing by Ralph Boulton