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Pakistan Ponders Panetta's Visit to India


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, second left, walks with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, left, to the defense minister's office, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, second left, walks with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, left, to the defense minister's office, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

ISLAMABAD - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Pakistan’s rival, India, highlights Washington’s increasingly friendly ties with New Delhi. His visit may pressure Pakistan to consider the kind of approach it wants to take with the United States.

Defense Secretary Panetta on Wednesday called on India to provide additional support to Kabul, including to Afghanistan's security forces. He added that peace in South Asia requires closer India-Pakistan ties.

The reaction in Islamabad from Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazzam Ali Khan was muted. “Any initiative which is solely based on this objective of achieving stability and prosperity and security of Afghanistan in terms of a strategy, we have no issue with that," he said.

Some in Pakistan fear the country is getting boxed in between its nuclear-armed rival India to the east and a pro-India Afghanistan to its west. Anti-government parties have played on that fear.

Shireen Mazari, foreign affairs spokesperson for the increasingly popular opposition party of Imran Khan, said there are major strategic differences between Pakistan and the United States. "Maybe the U.S. and Pakistan have certain tactical interests in common and there is no harm in cooperating, but our strategic goals are clearly different, because we don’t want India to be the hegemon in the region," she said.

She said those differences mean that Pakistan has to weigh the costs of siding with the United States and its war on terror. "Frankly, we feel that some of the costs are far greater than some of the benefits that may flow," she said.

Pakistan receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States. And until relations hit rock bottom after Pakistan shut down supply routes to Afghanistan to protest a U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, it also enjoyed military-to-military cooperation.

Panetta’s visit to India is aimed at deepening defense cooperation with New Delhi.

Moreover, NATO recently secured alternative routes into Afghanistan from the north through Central Asia, and the United States, ignoring Islamabad’s protests, has continued airstrikes targeting militants hiding out in Pakistan.

Independent security analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi says that while Pakistan is still a regional player, the U.S. has other options, which means Pakistan's "relevance is decreasing."

He says Panetta’s talks with India on helping Afghanistan provide for its own security means Pakistan will have to ask itself what role it wants to play. “Will it continue with the current distrust and confrontation with the U.S., or it has to modify, keeping in view the kind of new developments that are taking place within the region," he said.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Khan played down the differences between Islamabad and Washington. He insisted that while there may be ups-and-downs in the relationship, both countries want to resolve their differences in ways that are mutually acceptable.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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