US concerns on Fata likely to dominate Gilani-Bush talks
WASHINGTON, July 26: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s first plunge into the centre of American power begins on Monday with a meeting and working lunch with US President George W. Bush at the White House.
He will then hold separate meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
His hectic, three-day schedule also includes appointments with lawmakers, academics and journalists.
Officials at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington said that he might meet presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain as well.
The prime minister, who faces daunting economic problems at home, exacerbated by skyrocketing oil prices, also is to meet members of Mr Bush’s economic team and address business leaders.
His envoy in Washington, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, worked hard to make his visit smooth: meeting dozens of key US officials, lawmakers, journalists and think-tank experts during the last two or three weeks.
The list includes Mr Cheney, Secretary Rice, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and key congressional leaders from both Democratic and Republican parties.
Mr Haqqani wants the prime minister to return home with some substantial gains, which may include half a million tons of wheat, $230 million for upgrading F-16s and permission for non-stop flights to and from New York.
But there’s one front on which Mr Haqqani had little success: allaying US concerns on the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Fata.
And there’s one assurance that will neither be sought nor given during the prime minister’s visit: the United States will not attack suspected terrorist targets inside Pakistan.
The Americans may have many doubts about the war on terror but not on this issue.
From President Bush to Admiral Mullen, everybody is absolutely clear that if they have “actionable intelligence” about the presence of senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders anywhere in the world, they will act and act immediately, with or without the consent of the local authorities.
The Pakistanis also know this. Apparently, there’s no confusion between Islamabad and Washington over this issue.
The problem is in the media, both in Pakistan and the United States.
The US media want their administration to say that they will bomb each and every suspected terrorist target in Pakistan without consulting the Pakistani government. The US administration is not willing to say that.
The Pakistani media want their government to say that they will use all their resources to prevent the Americans from attacking targets inside Pakistan.
The Pakistani government knows that it cannot do so but is not willing to concede.
Recently, an American news magazine —Time — reported that when Mr Gilani meets President Bush, he may offer to allow US military actions inside Pakistan if they target only two individuals — Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri — and not anyone else.
The question of US strikes into Pakistan is linked to the larger issue of the presence of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements inside Fata.
Recent, US intelligence reports claim that as many as 12,000 foreign fighters may be hiding in the tribal areas and they are supported by thousands of locals, both Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.
Pakistan acknowledges the presence of terrorists in Fata, but says that the reports are exaggerated.
The Americans want Pakistan to continue its own military campaign against the terrorists, saying that Islamabad’s recent decision to hold talks with the militants will only exacerbate the situation.
Pakistan disagrees. It insists that while military action will be taken against the miscreants, it has to engage others to seek a negotiated settlement to the dispute.