WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Pakistan sought on Wednesday to overcome years of mistrust, with Washington promising to speed up overdue military payments as the two increase cooperation in tackling militants.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of having a new partnership that “stands the test of time” while her Pakistani counterpart said he was a “happy man” after a day of talks that covered issues from security to energy and water.
“It is a new day,” Clinton said, but she predicted a bumpy road. “Our countries have had our misunderstandings and disagreements in the past, and there are sure to be more disagreements in the future.”
Pakistan is an important U.S. ally in the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly as Washington sends more troops to neighboring Afghanistan to fight a war weighing heavily on President Barack Obama’s political legacy.
One bone of contention has been a delay in about $2 billion in military aid owed by the United States to Pakistan under a program called the Coalition Support Fund.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said a “substantial” amount of the money would be paid by the end of April, with Washington promising the remainder by the end of June, coincidentally the same time as an IMF performance review is due of its $7.6 billion loan package for Pakistan.
That IMF review leads to a disbursement of money under the loan for Pakistan but there has to be evidence that Islamabad has met financial targets and has enough cash flow to meet the loan obligations.
Qureshi also said the two agreed to fast-track pending Pakistani requests for military equipment as the two increase security cooperation and Clinton said they would work on a multiyear security package.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Pakistan for increased coordination over stabilizing Afghanistan, including the recent arrest of a key Afghan Taliban commander in a joint American-Pakistani raid in Karachi.
“It has really been extraordinary, in my view, seeing what Pakistan has done over the last, really, more than a year in terms of becoming engaged, in terms of their operations, in terms of understanding that they now face an existential threat,” Gates said.
Qureshi spoke of the sacrifices felt by his country with repeated attacks and suicide bombings against civilians and an economy in turmoil because of the violence.
“Yet our resolve remains undiminished because it is a matter of standing up for your principles and facing the consequences that come in its wake,” he said.
Pakistan’s delegation sent a 56-page document to the Americans ahead of this week’s meetings, giving their view of future relations and asking for more helicopters and pilotless drones as well as civilian nuclear cooperation.
Pakistan expert Bruce Riedel said the Americans were happy with recent military successes but this had ironically underscored that Islamabad could do a lot more.
“There will be some horse-trading. We owe them helicopters but I would be very surprised if we gave them anything on the nuclear front,” said Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution think tank.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan wants civilian nuclear cooperation with the United States and is pushing for the same kind of deal that its rival India negotiated for years.
“We hope nondiscriminatory access to vital energy resources will be available to us so that we can pursue our economic and industrial development plans,” said Qureshi in his opening statement, a reference to nuclear energy capability that Pakistan wants to boost to resolve its power crisis.
But the United States is reluctant to discuss such cooperation. Clinton sidestepped questions on the issue except to say that the Obama administration was prepared to discuss “whatever issues” the Pakistani delegation raised.
Such negotiations would be lengthy. It took years to negotiate such a deal with India and require consensus approval from both the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and the U.S. Congress.
The United States is also cautious due to an uproar created by allegations that a disgraced Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, transferred nuclear secrets to Iraq and Iran.
Despite rumblings over security assistance and nuclear issues, both sides sought to show a united front with the delegations intermingled rather than seated on opposite sides for the official meetings as is often the case.
Last year, the U.S. Congress passed legislation for a $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan over the next five years, which includes funding for water, energy and other projects.
Qureshi urged increased trade and market access to the United States. Clinton said she was looking into it but gave no specifics.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Phil Stewart; editing by Paul Simao and Will Dunham