US-Pakistani relations show signs of a thaw after top US military commanders met with Pakistan's army chief in Islamabad. But experts warn against too much optimism.
On Thursday, the Pakistani parliament debated US-Pakistani ties, which broke down after a NATO border strike killed 24 of its soldiers on November 26, last year. The lower house of Pakistan's parliament is reviewing recommendations from its national security committee, which was assigned the task of re-evaluating the country's alliance with the US.
Separate probes by the Pentagon and NATO into the lethal airstrike revealed that inadequate coordination and a lack of “fundamental trust” led to the tragedy. However, no apology was handed over to Islamabad. For its part, the Pakistani government rejected the findings and reiterated its demand that the US and NATO apologize.
Islamabad also blocked the key NATO supply line to Afghanistan in retaliation, which has still not been re-opened.
Pakistan, which is often accused of supporting Taliban militants in Afghanistan, is an important US ally in the 'War on Terrorism', and its cooperation is considered crucial to maintaining stability in neighboring war-torn Afghanistan before foreign combat troops leave the country at the end of 2014.
"Supply route important to Afghanistan effort"
In a meeting with Pakistani military commanders in Islamabad on Wednesday, the head of US Central Command, General James Mattis, and the NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, urged the Pakistani military leadership to re-open the NATO supply route.
Pentagon Press Secretary, George Little, who declined to give details of the meeting, said the supply line was important for NATO.
"We are hopeful that the ground supply routes will open in the near future. They are important to our effort in Afghanistan," said Little.
The civilian government in Pakistan has hinted that it might re-open the NATO supply line soon. But many in the country believe that the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party has little control over defense and foreign policy matters, as it is Pakistan's powerful military which calls the shots.
The meeting between US and Pakistani military officials is just one of the signs of a thaw in tense US-Pakistani relations. Earlier this week, US President Barack Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Seoul. The two leaders agreed on working together for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Possible backlash from Islamists
Shakoor Rahim, DW correspondent in Islamabad, said the decision to unblock NATO supplies would not be easy for the Pakistani government, as the Islamist parties had stepped up their agitation across the country against a possible resumption of the supply route.
Defense expert, retired Air Marshall Masood Akhter, told DW that the move would make the government more unpopular. "It would not get the support of the public. The government and the army will have to face a backlash. The US wants the resumption. And because Pakistan needs the US aid, it has to do something about it," he said.
However, Harris Khalique, an Islamabad-based political commentator and social activist, said the Pakistani religious parties were not the real representatives of the Pakistani people. "It is quite unfortunate that they are propped up again and again by different internal and external forces," Khalique told DW. "Their job is to hatemonger against India and the US. But I think they can be controlled if the civilian government and the military want it," he said.
Khalique said that the solution to the Afghanistan problem should be sought within the regional framework of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).
"We want the Americans to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, but we would not want Afghanistan to go back to the times of terrorism and extremism. So there has to be a balance; and that balance can only be achieved if Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and US sit together and talk. India's involvement is very important," Khalique said.
Concerning Pakistani demands in negotiations with the US, Khalique said that Islamabad wanted a significant role in Afghanistan and did not want its eastern and western borders to be insecure. However, he said, Pakistan would have to negotiate the demands.
But some Pakistani experts are of the view that Islamabad is not ready to abort its "covert support" of the Taliban, and this is causing serious problems for Washington, which needs a respectable and safe-exit from Kabul.
Dr. Naeem Ahmed, professor of International Relations at Karachi University, told DW that Pakistan wanted “to see a bigger role for the Taliban in Afghanistan."
"Washington and Kabul also want to take the Taliban on board, and there are reports that they are already conducting secret talks with some of their factions, but they want to exclude Pakistan from these negotiations," according to Professor Ahmed. He said that this was "not going down well with Islamabad" and added that, in his opinion, this was "the biggest hurdle in US-Pakistani relations."