Thursday, April 14, 2011

Drone attacks follow ISI chief to Pakistan after modest gains in US visit

WASHINGTON: A pair of US drone attacks on Wednesday that killed six suspected militants inPakistan followed the country's intelligence chief back home after his high-wire engagement in Washington during which he is said to have won modest concessions. 

ISI chief Shuja Pasha's 24-hour visit here on Monday for talks with his CIA opposite number saw the US promise greater transparency and accountability of CIA operations in Pakistan without any specific commitments, while rejecting the demand for a halt to drone strikes. Washington followed it up its unremitting stand with two drone strikes hours after Pasha returned to Pakistan. 

The strikes -- the first in more than two weeks -- indicated the two sides are still at odds despite Washington's effort to mollify its angry ally with a series of affable public statements. Asked if the strains between the United States and Pakistan's government are inhibiting counterterrorism efforts, White House spokesman Jay Carney skirted the question while saying the "relationship... cooperation between our two countries...has been important, and continues to this day." 

"We are engaged in a shared goal of defeating insurgents and terrorist groups. ... I can't discuss specifics about intelligence operations, but I can tell you that the cooperation between our two countries is important and continues," he added. 

At the State Department, officials indicated that the US would consider Pakistan's demand to scale down its contingent of intelligence operatives and special ops forces, but said it was having ongoing conversations about the size of US programs to train the Pakistan military. "We want to keep that program alive," spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "We think it's important." 

Pakistan's military wants to downsize the program and get a better handle on it because it suspects Washington is using it for espionage. It also wants to be kept in the loop about US tracking of organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (which is what led to the Raymand Davis shoot-out), which Washington suspects of having close ties with the Pakistani military establishment. 

But outside the polite bromides issued for public consumption, Pakistan has clearly fallen foul of the Washington establishment and US public opinion over what is widely seen as its two-faced approach to terrorism, including using it as a policy instrument in the region. Even as ISI chief Pasha left Washington, a top US general indicated that Pakistan continued to be dodgy about terrorist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, while warning that the organization had spread its tentacles beyond the subcontinent. 

"The discussion regarding the government of Pakistan's relationship to LeT is a very sensitive one," Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, pointedly told a Senate hearing even asIslamabad continued to allow LeT supremo Hafeez Mohammed Saeed a free run in Pakistan, while Pakistani fingerprints appeared in terrorism cases far and wide. 

In the US, on either side of ISI chief Pasha's day-long visit, two Pakistani expats were in the news for exporting what is now jokingly referred to as the country chief produce – terrorism. 

Farooque Ahmed, 35, a naturalized US citizen born in Pakistan, who prosecutors said wanted to "kill as many Americans as possible" by bombing Washington transit hubs, was sentenced to 23 years in prison on Monday. In Massachusetts, Aftab Khan, a Pakistani man who was arrested in connection with the Times Square bombing, agreed to be deported back to Pakistan under a plea deal after spending 11 months in prison. 

Such adverse publicity for Pakistan, including being implicated by the Headley-Rana duo for theMumbai attack during Pasha's visit, has hardly deterred the country's military establishment from pushing the envelope with Washington. While intelligence mavens would struggle to name the spy agencies and chief spooks of countries such as China and Russia, the ISI chief arrived in Washington in a blizzard of pre-visit hype and publicity, having put the country's demands -- stop drone strikes; withdraw CIA personnel -- on the table in background leaks before the trip. 

"It was a 21st-century way to open the high-level bargaining over new rules for the US-Pakistani intelligence relationship," commentator David Ignatius noted in a blog detailing the Pakistani high-wire strategy. What returns Pasha got for his labors will become apparent in the coming weeks. But the drone strikes within hours of his return to Pakistan provide an inkling.

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