Kerry Seeks To Smooth Fraught U.S.-Pakistan Ties

May 16, 2011

Julie McCarthy

With American-Pakistani relations at a crossroads, U.S. Sen. John Kerry attempted Monday to calm the fury generated in Pakistan when U.S. forces landed undetected and killed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan was outraged by the covert operation at bin Laden's compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad. In the United States, many members of Congress were outraged that bin Laden could have lived so long inside Pakistan, a country that receives considerable U.S. aid — money now in jeopardy.

Kerry told a news conference that as a goodwill gesture, Pakistan has agreed to return the tail of the American helicopter that crashed during the U.S. mission.

It was a small breakthrough in the deeply fraught relations Kerry came to Pakistan to mend. But on the larger questions, little was said. Such as, how did bin Laden live undiscovered for five years in Pakistan? Or, what are Pakistan's plans to uncover any other high-value targets possibly residing on its soil? Or, how would Pakistan reign in the Haqqani network that's killing NATO troops in Afghanistan or its own homegrown web of militants?

While short on specifics, Kerry acknowledged that these questions had all been raised.

"I can tell you we discussed every single one of them," he said. "Our primary objective is getting this relationship back on track and, indeed, focusing on the sanctuaries and focusing on the threat to Afghanistan, to our troops and to our security. That's what's in our interest and that's our focus."

Kerry said Pakistan had agreed to "several immediate steps," despite the resentment against the United States for not telling the Pakistanis in advance of the bin Laden operation.

The senior-most U.S. official to visit Pakistan since the anti-American clamor, Kerry said a stalled dialogue had at least restarted, with candor. And that included conveying to Pakistanis the deep skepticism of many in Washington who wonder about an alleged complicity with militants and whether the relationship is worth all the money that lawmakers provide Pakistan.

"The 'make or break' is real," he said. "As we know, [there are] members of Congress who aren't confident that it can be patched back together again. And that is why actions and not words are going to be critical to earning their votes in the United States Congress. I am very understanding of that. But I'm very hopeful that if we approach this the right way, I think we can make genuine progress."

In a joint statement, the United States and Pakistan agreed to work together on any future actions against "high-value targets" in Pakistan. But Dawn newspaper columnist Cyril Almeida says the U.S. does not trust Pakistan to share intelligence on such targets as the Taliban's Mullah Omar or bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He says there may be an uptick in Pakistani cooperation but only in the short-term.

"The question is ... is our commitment to a long-term dogged pursuit of al-Qaida inside Pakistan — is that commitment evident? I don't think it is right now, and I think Pakistan will have prove that it exists," he says.

Referring to congressional threats to cut aid to Pakistan, retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood cautions the United States to be patient. He says punishing Pakistan might "satisfy the American need to express displeasure," but it could produce unhappy consequences: an already weak civilian government could be further endangered.

"If you push Pakistan too hard, then ultimately it will get destabilized," Masood says. "And then when it gets destabilized, what happens then?"

Masood says there is always the threat of a military takeover. And there is perennial concern about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal — said to be the fastest-growing in the world. But the U.S.-Pakistan statement welcomed what it called Kerry's "clear affirmation" that the United States has no designs on Pakistan nuclear weapons. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.