Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has promised a new era in Washington’s relations with Pakistan at the start of a visit intended to stiffen Pakistani leaders’ resolve against the Taliban and burnish the US’s battered image in the country.
But the difficulty of the task ahead was illustrated by the car bomb that killed some 90 people in the city of Peshawar yesterday – an attack she denounced as “cowardly”.
Many US officials and analysts have anticipated such attacks as the all-but inevitable counter-punch from the Taliban as the Pakistani military continues an operation against insurgents in the mountainous region of South Waziristan.
Mrs Clinton is encouraging Pakistan to maintain the push while providing reassurances about the US’s ongoing commitment to Islamabad.
“It is my hope to turn the page, to start a new era in relationships between Pakistan and the US,” she told Pakistani media before leaving Washington.
On the flight over, she said she gave the Pakistani military and government ”high marks” for the South Waziristan offensive, which would be “a subject of conversation in practically every discussion”.
She added: “It is unfortunate that there are those who question our motives, perhaps are sceptical that we’re going to commit to a long-term relationship, and I want to try to clear the air on that.”
As part of her efforts, Mrs Clinton on Wednesday announced the US was providing $125m (€85m, £76m) to help Pakistan solve the electricity crisis that has led to frequent blackouts and widespread protests.
At a press conference with Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, she said: “We commit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistani people in your fight for peace and security.”
Comments by Mrs Clinton that the US also wanted to strengthen Pakistani democracy and civilian institutions also highlight the sensitivity of her mission, in the wake of recent protests by the Pakistani military that a showpiece five-year, $7.5bn US aid package could undercut the country’s sovereignty.
US officials and legislators were quick to argue that the recently approved legislation, which mandates reports on the Pakistani military’s efforts against extremist groups and on its non-interference in politics, places no conditions on Pakistan itself, only reporting requirements on the US administration. However, the text says that without such assurances there should be no arms transfers to Pakistan.
“There are no conditions on Pakistan; there are reporting requirements on us,” Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said last week. He added a note of caution about the South Waziristan offensive, arguing that while the US knew “where the troops are going …it’ll take a while before we know whether the enemy they’re fighting has been dispersed or destroyed”.
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