(From left) Afghan deputy foreign minister Jawid Luddin, Pakistan’s foreign secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani and US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman before their meeting in Islamabad. (Reuters)
Islamabad, April 28: The latest high-level talks on ending a diplomatic deadlock between the US and Pakistan ended in failure yesterday over Pakistani demands for an unconditional apology from the Obama administration for an airstrike. The White House, angered by the recent spectacular Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, refuses to apologise.
The Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, left the Pakistani capital last night with no agreement after two days of discussions aimed at patching up the damage caused by the American airstrikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan border. Both sides insist that they are now ready to make up and restore an uneasy alliance that at its best offers support for American efforts in Afghanistan as well as the battle against some extremist groups operating from Pakistan.
The administration had been seriously debating whether to say “I’m sorry” to the Pakistanis’ satisfaction — until April 15, when multiple, simultaneous attacks struck Kabul and other Afghan cities.
“What changed was the 15th of April,” said a senior administration official.
American military and intelligence officials concluded the attacks came at the direction of a group working from a base in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal belt: the Haqqani network, an association of border criminals and smugglers that has mounted lethal attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan. That confirmed longstanding American mistrust about Pakistani intentions — a poison that infects nearly every other aspect of the strained relationship.
That swung the raging debate on whether Obama or another senior American should go beyond the expression of regret that the administration had already given, and apologise.
The negotiations are complicated by a complex web of interlocking demands from both sides. Without the apology, Pakistani officials say they cannot reopen Nato supply routes into Afghanistan that have been closed since November.
The Americans, in turn, are withholding between $1.18 billion and $3 billion of promised military aid — the exact figure depending on which side is speaking.
The continuing deadlock does not bode well for Pakistan’s attendance at a Nato meeting in Chicago in three weeks, assuming it is even invited.
The administration has been eager to cast the event as a regional security summit meeting, and Pakistan’s absence would be embarrassing.
Administration officials acknowledged yesterday that the stalemate would not be resolved quickly.
A series of visits and discussions in recent weeks included a meeting between Obama and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a nuclear summit meeting in Seoul, South Korea, last month.
Since the Pakistani parliament completed a review of relations with the US, Americans have repeatedly vowed to respect the will of Pakistan’s lawmakers, even though they demanded an end to American drone strikes, which the US sees as crucial in fighting militants hiding in Pakistan’s border areas.
Aside from the apparently intractable issues of drones and the apology, the two countries focused on four specific areas of potential cooperation: counterterrorism, the Nato supply lines, military aid payments and the Taliban peace process.
Yet there was an undeniable sense of wariness, driven by the pressures of domestic politics, with Obama facing re-election this year and Pakistan due for elections in the coming 12 months.
Pakistanis’ rage has been rising since a shooting in Lahore in January 2011 that involved a CIA employee and fuelled common fantasies about being overrun by rogue spies.