Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pakistan asks Afghanistan to distance itself from United States, Afghan officials say

Washington Post
Joshua Partlow

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani
KABUL — When Pakistan’s prime minister visited Kabul earlier this month, he spoke grandly to the public of an enduring friendship between neighbors and his country’s commitment to help Afghans in the grinding war with the Taliban.

But in private meetings, Yousaf Raza Gillani and the leaders of Pakistan’s military and intelligence service offered a startling proposal for cooperation: The Afghan government should distance itself from the United States and seek new allies, particularly China, according to current and former Afghan officials with knowledge of the meeting.

Gillani read to President Hamid Karzai from a paper outlining Pakistan’s view that the U.S. military strategy had no prospect for success, that its troops antagonized the region and that the Afghan government should avoid any agreement that allows long-term American military bases in Afghanistan, according to the Afghans.

Because of the growing fiscal problems in the United States, Gillani argued, America was a power in decline, one without the ability to support Afghanistan and Pakistan in the future, and Afghans should look “for alternative allies,” said one senior Afghan official.

“That was the first time that the whole Pakistani state, military and civilian, spoke to us with one voice. That is important,” the Afghan official said. “If a country comes and puts its conditions on the table, we have to take that seriously.”

Although Pakistan is a U.S. ally, top Pakistani officials have long been deeply disdainful of U.S. policy in the region, and have been hedging their bets in case U.S. efforts in Afghanistan fail. Pakistan’s overture to the Afghan government — if Afghan accounts are accurate — marks one of the clearest signals to date that Pakistan is moving away from its partnership with the United States.

A spokesman for Gillani denied that the Pakistanis delivered any such message but would not discuss the content of the meeting. “Whatever you’re saying is not true,” Shabir Anwar said.

Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry released a statement Wednesday saying that “Pakistan recognizes the key role of the United States in promoting stability, peace and harmony in Afghanistan.”

Obama administration officials said their reading of the meeting differed sharply from that of the Afghan officials. “Although the Pakistanis did caution the Afghans not to become too dependent on the Americans,” one official said, “they were reaching out to the Karzai government in a way that suggested they thought the time was right to move toward some kind of political settlement.”

“The good news,” the official said, “is that I think that there’s some prospect that Afghanistan will become the common ground on which the U.S. and Pakistan” can solidify their relationship.

The meeting, details of which were first reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, has sparked considerable debate in recent days among various factions in the Afghan government. Some see Pakistan’s offer as a turning point in the relationship with the two countries and one that shows promise. Others distrust Pakistan’s motives and believe Afghanistan cannot afford to abandon the United States in favor of partnerships with China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Karzai’s chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khuram, called the meeting “historic” but would not go into the details about the discussions.

“Now we know what Pakistan wants,” he said in an interview. 

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