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Tensions emerge in Pakistan-US relations

Adm Mike Mullen (left) speaks as US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, centre, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi
Both sides looked a little ill at ease during Tuesday's press conference

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Islamabad

The body language said it all.

The normally urbane and mild-mannered Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, was firm and spoke in categorical terms.

Meanwhile, Richard Holbrooke chatted quietly with Admiral Mike Mullen - an act that, whatever the intention, was perceived as rude and contemptuous by those present.

The US special envoy and chairman of joint chiefs of staff were holding a press conference with Mr Qureshi after "frank" discussions.

'Safe havens'

They were on their first visit to Pakistan since Barack Obama unveiled his new strategy to fight the Afghan war.

US drone
Pakistan is highly critical of US drones

The American president has placed Pakistan firmly at the centre of it, stressing the importance of eliminating alleged al-Qaeda and Taleban "safe havens" in the country's border region near Afghanistan.

Mr Holbrooke and Adm Mullen had come to discuss the detail of the strategy and deepen co-operation. Instead, their visit highlighted quite publicly clear differences between Pakistani and American views.

There were two main bones of contention.

One was American missiles strikes carried out against suspected militants on Pakistani soil by unmanned drones. These are expected to continue and possibly increase, despite objections from Islamabad.

"We did talk about drones and let me be frank, there's a gap between us and them," Mr Qureshi told journalists.

American officials have implied that the government has given tacit agreement to a tactic which they say has eliminated al-Qaeda operatives and disrupted the group.

But the missiles also kill civilians and are deeply unpopular. Critics argue the strikes compound anti-Americanism, deepen resentment of the government and further destabilise the country.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that the Americans were asked by government officials to transfer the drone technology and authority to the Pakistan Army. Adm Mullen dodged the question.

The Pakistani stance came as a rude shock to the Americans, who had so far been taking the civilian and military leadership for granted
Dawn newspaper

Mr Qureshi's terse statement about the drone attacks reflects a solid consensus in both political and military circles against the policy, the latest of which was a statement by a parliamentary committee on national security that condemned the strikes in the "strongest terms" and demanded an immediate end to them.

The second bone of contention was what's perceived here as an American "slander campaign" against Pakistan's main military intelligence agency, the ISI.

Since the announcement of Mr Obama's strategy, American generals have publicly voiced long-held suspicions that elements of the ISI are supporting some militants, including the Afghan Taleban.

Counter-productive

"The challenges are associated with the ISI's support historically for some of the [militant] organisations and I think it's important that that support ends," Adm Mullen told a small gathering of Pakistani and foreign journalists. "It's important that we work together to address this threat."

Anti US protest in March in Pakistan's border areas
The US is concerned about Pakistan's unruly border areas

However, when pressed for hard evidence on allegations that the Taleban leadership was based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, Mr Holbrooke said only: "I hear there is a Quetta Shura because people tell me about it," without saying who these people were.

When asked whether the public pressure on the ISI wasn't counter-productive, the special representative talked about the importance of the Pakistani and Afghan intelligence agencies overcoming historical distrust and working together against a common enemy.

"We're putting on as much pressure as the system can bear," he said, "but we're not beating up on anyone."

But the Pakistani perception is that they are. Both the army and the ISI have rigorously denied the charges. And a security source told the BBC that the Americans had been given a sharp message to back off.

The Army Chief of Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, explained that "this kind of criticism was in no way helping us".

At the root of this public discontent is Pakistani frustration with perceived American high-handedness.

Analysts say the army feels it's being treated like a hired gun. Dawn Newspaper echoed that sentiment: "The Pakistani stance came as a rude shock to the Americans, who had so far been taking the civilian and military leadership for granted."

"The bottom line," Mr Qureshi said at the press conference, "is the question of trust… We can only work together if we respect and trust each other. There is no other way, nothing else will work."



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