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US-Pakistan Relationship Strained by Terror Issue

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have hit some bumpy spots over efforts to curb terrorist acts by Islamic extremists. The rocky relationship was recently highlighted with the accidental deaths of 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers in a U.S. airstrike along the porous border with Afghanistan. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the issue of terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan is an increasing irritant between Washington and Islamabad.

Taliban and al-Qaida militants have been using the rugged territory of Pakistan's tribal areas as a safe haven to launch attacks coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been pressing Pakistan to do more to eradicate the terrorist sanctuaries. Pakistan says it is doing all it can to halt the terrorist activity, but that sealing the border is impossible.

But a new study by the RAND Corporation suggests a more mixed picture. Seth Jones, the author of the Defense Department-funded study, says that while the federal government of Pakistan is committed to fighting terrorism, there is active collusion between militants and at least some Pakistani officials.

"There is clear information that's been collected by NATO, by a range of other organizations including the United Nations, which indicates that there is more than just passive support and unwillingness to act on Pakistani soil, but that there is at least nonlethal assistance, training, logistical support, the provision of intelligence, by elements of the Pakistan government, in particular the Inter Services Intelligence directorate and the Frontier Corps," he said.

Jones notes that Pakistani intelligence controlled the flow of arms and money to the anti-Soviet Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and also helped create the Taliban in the 1990s as a counterweight to India. Now, he says, the government in Kabul is again making Islamabad nervous.

"What you have now is a government based in Kabul that is strongly allied with India, not with Pakistan," he added. "And so I think that is of major concern. You have a number of Indian development projects based in Afghanistan. You have road construction. You have a lot of Indian money that's poured in. And I think that has been felt with deep concern among senior elements of the Pakistan government, and certainly at lower levels of key government agencies."

Pakistani officials bristle at the suggestion that they are soft on terrorism. Husain Haqqani, the new Pakistan ambassador to the United States, tells VOA he strongly disagrees with the RAND report. He says if there was any collusion between officials and militants, it happened before the newly elected government came into office in March.

"If there have been elements in Pakistan who have had a lenient view of the Taliban, rest assured that the new elected government will not allow that lenient view to prevail," he noted.

The Pakistani military has preferred to leave policing militant activity in the tribal areas to the Frontier Corps, a locally recruited paramilitary force. The U.S. military has put together a plan to train and equip the Frontier Corps. But analysts say the force's local roots make them susceptible to infiltration and manipulation by militant groups.

Pakistan says 11 Frontier Corps troops were killed in the recent U.S. air strike, which American officials say was aimed at a border area from where NATO forces were taking fire from suspected militants. The United States has expressed its regret over the deaths, and both countries have agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the incident.

Domestic political developments in Pakistan have affected counterterrorism efforts. Seth Jones says the new elected government in Pakistan is still fragile, which further feeds the military's resistance to aggressive operations against the militants in the tribal areas.

"So I do think is clear reluctance among the army for sustained operations in these kinds of areas, and certainly with a fragmented civilian government of the time where it's not entirely clear how that government will persist over the next several months, probably even less willingness in this political environment to conduct sustained operations," he added.

Both the previous military government of General Pervez Musharraf and the new civilian government have opted at various times to try to secure peace deals with tribal leaders to contain the militants. Echoing the RAND report, General Dan McNeill, who just relinquished his post as NATO commander in Afghanistan, says such deals only feed cross-border attacks, not curtail them.

"I think what's missing is action to keep pressure on the insurgents," he explained. "Because certainly when there had been pressure on the insurgents, and then we run the operations we run on our side of the border, the untoward events tend to go down. When there are talks, especially when these talks culminate in a peace deal -- I mean, we've got clear evidence in numbers that the untoward events on the Afghan side of the border go up."

But Ambassador Haqqani rejects the notion that the peace deals fuel militant activity.

"After March 2008 the government has put its foot down and said that while we want engagement with our tribal elders and tribal leaders, there will be no agreements that do not forbid attacks on either side of the border, inside Afghanistan or in Pakistan," he said. "And no agreements have taken place without that guarantee."

Speaking at the NATO summit in Brussels, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that even though there is unease in the U.S. government about such deals, the new Pakistan government must be given a chance to find its way.

"I think it's fair to say that we have some skepticism, based on past experience, whether some of these agreements will work out," he noted. "But I think that we have to give - it's their country - and we have to give them the chance to try to deal with it in the way that they think is best."

The RAND Corporation report says the major flaw in such peace deals is that there is no mechanism to enforce them.