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Kayani takes centrestage at US-Pak dialogue

world Updated: Mar 23, 2010 14:12 IST

IANS
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Ahead of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue set to begin in Washington on Wednesday, the US has focused on building a stronger security relationship with Islamabad giving primacy to the military over the political establishment.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates Monday met Pakistani Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at the Pentagon "to discuss the continuing conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan," as the defence department put it in a photo caption.

No other details were released of the meeting joined by only chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen and Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Michele Flournoy.

But hours before the meeting with Kayani Gates told reporters the Obama administration is looking to establish a long-term security relationship with Islamabad and help it in dealing with security challenges faced by both countries.

"I would say that what we are interested in is looking at the long term in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, how we can strengthen our relationship and how we can help Pakistan in dealing with the security challenges that face them but also face us and NATO as well," he said.

"I am looking forward to the meetings this week with the Pakistani delegation, the foreign minister, General Kayani, the minister of defence," Gates said after a meeting with his Canadian counterpart.

Kayani's Monday meeting with Gates and Mullen followed one Sunday with the head of Central Command, General David Petraeus, at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida "to reaffirm the strategic partnership between Pakistan and the United States."

The two generals "discussed ways to advance cooperation and collaboration in countering extremist violence in Afghanistan, as well as US support for Pakistan's struggle against violent extremists at home," US Central Command said in a statement.

Petraeus, who oversees US forces in Afghanistan and Central Asia, "commended Kayani on Pakistan's hard-fought gains" against the Taliban in the Swat valley and the military's "impressive" counter-insurgency campaign, it said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would be co-chairing the strategic dialogue with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, also put out a video message Monday to mark Pakistan's March 23 National Day declaring: "Pakistan is close to my heart."

Wearing Pakistan's green colours, Clinton said the US is "supporting Pakistan's efforts to...defeat the extremist groups who threaten Pakistan, the region, and even our own country... this (first ministerial-level strategic) dialogue will be an opportunity to forge even closer ties between our nations."

Qureshi is also due meet US Special US Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke for "a preview" of the strategic dialogue, as US officials put it.

But as the New York Times suggested in a report from Karachi, in a sign of the mounting power of the army over the civilian government in Pakistan, "Kayani, will be the dominant Pakistani participant in important meetings in Washington this week."

In Pakistan, much has been made of how Kayani has driven the agenda for the talks billed as cabinet-level meetings,"with the foreign minister as the nominal head of the Pakistani delegation".

"But it has been the general who has been calling the civilian heads of major government departments, including finance and foreign affairs, to his army headquarters to discuss final details, an unusual move in a democratic system," the Times noted.