WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is touting high level meetings with Pakistan in Washington this week as a major deepening of ties with its nuclear-armed ally but gaping mistrust lingers over issues from security to aid.
Only last week, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is leading the Pakistani side, complained that Washington must now follow through on its promises.
U.S. officials also say it is taking time to restore trust that has been absent for decades but cite improvements in security cooperation, particularly after Pakistan’s arrest of the Afghan Taliban’s military commander earlier this year.
“This is a work in progress,” said U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.
Wednesday’s meetings, called a “strategic dialogue”, will be led by foreign ministers but also attended by military, finance, agriculture, energy and other officials.
Pakistan’s powerful Army General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani will be there, indicating the military’s central role in relations with Washington, particularly as the U.S. steps up its campaign in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“How can you have a strategic dialogue without including the military?” said Holbrooke when asked to comment on Kayani’s inclusion in the talks.
One cause of tensions is a widely-held belief that Washington will quickly abandon the region after its troops start to withdraw from Afghanistan from mid-2011, a goal announced by President Barack Obama in December.
“What I would be looking at is how the U.S. can reassure Pakistan that it is not going to leave the way it did in the past. There have been periods of intense engagement followed by periods of neglect,” Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told Reuters.
Pakistan expert Alexander Thier said Obama’s December speech was seen by many as a signal the United States would not be robustly in the region in the next few years.
“This is a battle of perception,” said Thier, of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “We are trying to convince them we are not going to pick up stakes and leave,” he added.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was meeting Kayani on Monday, said he would emphasize Washington’s commitment.
“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,” Gates said before the meeting.
U.S. and Pakistani officials said there would likely be greater details given of security help for Pakistan, with timetables on when funds and equipment would be delivered, as well as specifics on water, agriculture and energy projects.
However, Haqqani said this week’s meetings were more about how the two nations could build confidence than aid packages.
“There has always been insufficient trust between us. This is a very important meeting in terms of building this trust.”
Another area Pakistan wants to cover in the talks is India’s growing role in Afghanistan. Haqqani said Islamabad wanted to be certain that its own security concerns were addressed in the region.
Pakistan’s recent help in reeling in the Afghan Taliban follows months of intense prodding by Washington and is seen by many as Islamabad’s wish to play a bigger role in future negotiations with militants as the war comes to a close.
There is also growing anger over increased attacks in Pakistan on civilian targets and while opinion polls show strong anti-American sentiment, they also indicate decreasing support for the Taliban.
“The challenge for the United States is how to translate the changing Pakistani sentiment against the Taliban into a more positive sentiment towards the United States,” a senior Pakistani official told Reuters.
But winning over the Pakistani public is a complicated business. A $7.5 billion, five-year civilian aid package passed by the U.S. Congress last year was met with deep suspicion over U.S. motives rather than the appreciation Washington wanted.
Final details of how that money will be spent are still being worked out. Plans to funnel more aid through Pakistani non-governmental organizations and the government have slowed down the process as Congress requires strict monitoring of U.S. taxpayer funds.
Another round of high-level meetings is expected in Islamabad later in the year, possibly in June or August, although final dates were still being discussed.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Storey)