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US tries to bridge trust deficit with Pak

When Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s commercial flight to the United States stopped in Manchester, England, this week, the US ambassador in London drove four hours to be there for the hour-long layover.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2010 00:20 IST

When Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s commercial flight to the United States stopped in Manchester, England, this week, the US ambassador in London drove four hours to be there for the hour-long layover.

The goal was to avoid any unpleasantness — including the possibility that British-based US airline security might insist on body-scanning Qureshi — that might start on Wednesday’s US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Washington off on the wrong foot. As Pakistan and the United States struggle to overcome what both characterise as a mutual “trust deficit,” the Obama administration hopes that the high-level talks will consolidate the new partnership the president promised last fall in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation in shutting down Taliban and al-Qaeda havens.

Relations have significantly improved in recent months, with a recent tripling of US economic assistance, ongoing Pakistani military offensives against insurgent strongholds in the mountainous region bordering Afghanistan and the recent arrests of senior Taliban figures.

But the partnership remains precarious and prone to suspicion, eruptions and posturing. Both sides are looking for additional commitments, according to officials in Washington and Islamabad who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The Pakistanis are not stupid,” a US official said. “They know this is not China or Taiwan or India, where we have a long-run business investment driving the partnership. We have a war and we need them. They are suspicious that we’re going to leave. But they also want to take maximum advantage of their moment in the sun.”

The administration has mobilised its senior national security team for the talks, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and including Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with top trade, economic and aid officials.

Qureshi heads a Pakistani delegation of senior cabinet officials, as well as the powerful army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, who is viewed as driving the nation’s agenda. Kiyani arrived Sunday at Central Command headquarters in Tampa for meetings with General David H. Petraeus, and had separate meetings here Monday and Tuesday with Gates and Mullen.

Pakistan is expected to reiterate long-standing requests for armed drone aircraft, officials said, as well for additional helicopters and other equipment. Resentful of US accounting demands, the Pakistani military wants a smoother transfer of money to support its counterterrorism efforts; its civilian government wants more control over economic assistance programs, trade concessions and increased US market access.

Pakistani officials are also seeking reassurance that a substantial US military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after Obama’s promised withdrawal begins in mid-2011 and that their traditional adversary, India, will not be allowed to expand its strategic presence there.

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