At tense time for US-Pakistan ties, Hillary Clinton swings velvet hammer

In Pakistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took care to say senior leaders there didn't know Osama bin Laden was hiding near Islamabad. But she also pushed hard for Pakistan to hunt down certain Islamist extremists.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses a news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff at the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, May 27. Clinton said that relations between the United States and Pakistan had reached a turning point after the killing of Osama bin Laden and Islamabad must make 'decisive steps' in the days ahead to fight terrorism.

In an attempt to pull US-Pakistan relations out of a downward spiral, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is telling Pakistani officials the steps they must take soon – including chasing down specific Islamist extremists long thought to enjoy the protection of the country’s intelligence services.

Short of such action, Pakistan risks seeing the US undertake another secret operation on its soil like the May 1 raid that targeted Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, says President Obama. The US would not hesitate to repeat such unilateral action if it learned that “active plans” for terrorist acts were going unchecked, Mr. Obama told the BBC this week.

Secretary Clinton made a surprise stop in Islamabad Friday at the end of a week-long European trip. She pointedly said there is no evidence that anyone at the highest levels of the Pakistani government knew Mr. bin Laden was living outside Islamabad, in Abbottabad. She also underscored the “close cooperation” between the US and Pakistan over the past decade that she said has resulted in the killing or capture of many “terrorists” and “violent extremists.”

But she also said the two countries “have reached a turning point.” The US would be looking to Pakistan “to take decisive steps in the days ahead” to indicate that it understands the stakes for both countries, she said.

“We both recognize there is still much more work required, and it is urgent,” Clinton said in remarks to journalists after meeting with the top Pakistani leadership.

How Pakistan responds to Clinton’s call to action remains to be seen. But on Thursday the Pakistani government revealed that it has told the US to reduce the number of its military personnel in the country.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared at the Islamabad press conference with Clinton and acknowledged that the US is “working our way through” Pakistani “requests” to reduce the US military presence. But he also suggested that fluctuations in the numbers are normal.

“We’ve been here for some time at the invitation of the Pakistani government and Pakistani military working a training mission, and those numbers go up and down over time,” Mullen said. Other sources suggested that the number of US special operations trainers in Pakistan could drop from about 120 to fewer than 50. The number of US intelligence agents could also be reduced.

Meanwhile, it appears bin Laden had mulled over the idea of seeking a deal with Pakistan to secure Al Qaeda's protection in the country, in exchange for the terrorist organization's agreement not to carry out attacks in Pakistan. Evidence gathered in the raid on bin Laden's compound suggests he had proposed the idea to others in Al Qaeda's senior leadership. But US officials told CNN that there is no indication that bin Laden had taken his idea to any Pakistani official.

Bin Laden's residence in Pakistan and ensuing negative reaction among Pakistanis to the raid on Abbottabad have prompted some in Congress to call for cutting or eliminating aid to Pakistan – in particular a multibillion-dollar civilian aid package that only recently got under way.

But if anything is targeted, it should be the preponderant military assistance, some experts say. About two-thirds of the $20 billion the US has provided Pakistan since 2002 has been military aid, notes Lisa Curtis, a specialist in US-Pakistan relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Cutting the recent development assistance package to Pakistan is the wrong approach, she says.

If anything, the US should “suspend” but not eliminate some military assistance, she says – until it becomes clear who in Pakistan knew what about bin Laden, and as a means of increasing leverage for getting Pakistani cooperation.

Clinton in her remarks suggested that the current storm in both countries over US aid is likely to pass, and that she sees aid to Pakistan continuing. “We’re going to continue to offer what we believe is in our mutual best interests,” she said.

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