Pakistan drifts toward China as US loses patience | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 08.06.2012
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Pakistan drifts toward China as US loses patience

Islamabad has reacted angrily to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's remarks that the US is "losing patience with Pakistan" over Pakistan's reluctance to dismantle safe havens for terrorists on its soil.

On Thursday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said during his visit to Kabul that Washington was running out of patience with Islamabad over its reluctance to go after the militant Haqqani group in its semi-governed northwestern tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

"It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan," said Panetta, adding that Pakistan needed to take steps.

Pakistani Taliban militants take part in a training session in South Waziristan

Counter-terrorism experts say Islamabad is supporting Islamist militants

US officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing safe heavens to al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Counter-terrorism experts are of the view that the Haqqani network gets logistical and financial support from Pakistani intelligence agencies and are used by Islamabad to create unrest in Afghanistan.

Reacting to Panetta's remarks, Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's ambassador to the US, said on Thursday that the allegations that Pakistan was supporting Islamist militants, particularly the Haqqani group, were "unhelpful" and would make it tougher for the two countries to narrow their differences.

"It adds an unhelpful twist to the process and leaves little oxygen for those of us seeking to break a stalemate," Rehman said in a statement.

US-Pakistani ties have been at their lowest level since the killing of al Qaeda's former chief Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad in May last year. They worsened further when a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November. In retaliation, Islamabad blocked a key NATO supply route to Afghanistan, which, to date, has not been reopened.

Islamabad's 'favorites'

Many Afghanistan experts maintain that Haqqanis are Islamabad's "favorites," and that the military's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses them as a bargaining tool for its influence in Afghanistan. On its part, Islamabad says it is in contact with the Haqqanis but that it does not support the group.

Ali Shah, a Pakistani researcher, told DW that despite the fact that the US had repeatedly demanded Islamabad to act against the Haqqanis, the Pakistani government would not do it because it considered the militant group "an asset."

"It is a widely acknowledged fact that the Haqqani network never carried out bomb attacks in Pakistan," Shah said, suggesting the Haqqanis did not want to harm Pakistan. In his opinion, the Pakistani government is only against some "rouge Taliban elements" that are challenging its authority.

But others think the policy of supporting militants is dangerous for Pakistan.

Harris Khalique, an Islamabad-based political analyst, told DW that Islamabad's strategy of meddling in Afghan affairs through Islamist militants had "harmed the country enough."

"We should stop supporting the Haqqanis and other militant groups for our own interest," he said.

Regional alliances

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, with Chinese President Hu Jintao

Many Pakistanis think China is a more reliable partner than the US

Prior to his trip to Afghanistan, Panetta visited New Delhi to hold important strategic talks with Indian leaders and encouraged them to play a "more active role" in Afghanistan, which has so far been restricted to development work and military training.

Experts say Pakistan sees India's growing influence in Afghanistan with a lot of worry because a bigger and more active presence of India in there would mean an insecure western border for Pakistan. To counterbalance the US-Indian alliance in Afghanistan, Pakistan is now seeking increased Chinese support. But there are also other reasons for Islamabad's closer alliance with Beijing:

"Pakistan is looking ahead. China is going to be the superpower in ten years. Islamabad is getting closer to Beijing and its alliance with Washington is slowly and gradually taking a back seat," said Shah.

Khalique said India should be careful about getting into a bigger alliance with the US as it would create more instability in the region.

"The ideal situation would be a regional alliance between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India. This would ensure prosperity and growth for all nations of the region," he said.

"Regional disputes should be resolved regionally. The US is an outsider in the region and should not be allowed to influence regional politics in a big way."

Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning

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