Leader's visit to help set U.S.-Pakistan priorities

Prime minister Gilani arrives at the White House Monday. Likely topics: counterterrorism and democratic stability.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
In May: Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (l.) and President Bush talked in Egypt two months ago, ahead of the Middle East World Economic Forum there.

The visit by Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to the White House Monday will set the course of what will be one of the United States' most critical and complex bilateral relationships in the coming years.

But Mr. Gilani's visit also has an aura of urgency in Washington – a sense that Pakistan and its relationship with the US cannot simply coast through the final six months of the Bush presidency. The prime minister's hold on power since the February elections that swept him into office is fragile, and deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan are focusing increased attention on the Pakistan factor in the war there.

From the US perspective, Pakistan's tribal areas harbor two of America's principal adversaries: an Al Qaeda leadership that intelligence officials believe is planning new terror attacks against the US, and Taliban fighters increasingly targeting US and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. With these facts in mind, the US is looking for stronger action from Gilani's new civilian government and the Pakistani military against Islamic extremists.

At the same time, many Pakistanis want to see a stronger US commitment to their country's democratic forces and development. They believe US policy toward Pakistan during the Bush years was too focused on President Pervez Musharraf and actually contributed to the country's political fragility.

"This is really an opportunity to put what is a crucial relationship for both countries on a new footing," says Lisa Curtis, an Asian studies senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Concern is high in Congress that a new direction in relations with Pakistan, with less emphasis on military aid and a stronger focus on development assistance, is not coming fast enough. Given the domestic challenges that the Gilani government faces – a food shortage, galloping food prices, and a stock-market meltdown – others worry that the resulting disparate priorities will mean that the renewal of the US-Pakistani relationship faces very high hurdles.

"We need to transform the pillars of the partnership, but that's going to be tough," says Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on South Asia who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Gilani comes to Washington at a moment of heightened tensions between the two countries. Pakistanis are still furious over the killing in June of 11 Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers in a US airstrike aimed at insurgents fleeing back to Pakistan from Afghanistan. Then this month, nine US soldiers were killed when the outpost they were establishing in the border region was attacked by Taliban fighters. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, blamed the attack on insurgents finding haven among sympathizers across the border in Pakistan.

Ms. Curtis says President Bush should use Gilani's visit to ease those tensions. One way to do that, she says, is to express total support for Pakistan's democratic transition. "This is the moment for the Bush administration and the US more generally to show support for a democratically elected government in Pakistan," she says.

Some senior officials in the Bush administration continue to see President Musharraf, whose party lost the February elections, as a force for stability in the country, but Curtis disagrees. "Bush should make it clear he wants to see cooperation from the country's new democratic leaders," she says.

Another source of tension is the new government's reluctance to take aggressive action against Islamic militants in the tribal areas. In a visit to Washington earlier this month, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the fight with the militants is a Pakistani fight. Foreign troops, even those of a partner, would not be accepted on Pakistani soil, he said.

Curtis says the US should support the Pakistani government in its battle but also make clear to the Pakistani leadership and military that they must move to a more aggressive posture if they want to avoid the need for unilateral US strikes.

One of the biggest obstacles many experts see to Pakistan's transformation and long-term stability is its military's focus on its historical confrontation with India. "We need to help Pakistan shift its security posture from counter-India to counterinsurgency," Mr. Markey says.

While he emphasizes building institutional capacity and development efforts in a report on the tribal areas, Markey says the US should also adjust its military aid to reflect Pakistan's internal threats. That means helicopters over F-16s, he says.

However, the White House is asking Congress to approve a plan to shift military assistance approved for counter­insurgency programs to an updating of Pakistan's aging F-16 fleet.

The State Department says that shifting more than $200 million in military aid to the F-16s would free up money Pakistan had planned to spend on the upgrade for food aid and other social needs.

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