WASHINGTON — Pakistan's foreign minister revealed Thursday that her country would soon hold confidential talks with the United States and Afghanistan to improve a three-way counter terrorism relationship beset by misunderstandings, including one over the Pakistan-based Haqqani network that Washington considers the greatest threat to Afghan stability. But she refused to say whether her government was ready to take any action against the militants.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Hina Rabbani Khar said senior officials from the three countries have been instructed to come up with a strategy for repairing cooperation that has suffered since U.S.-Pakistani relations collapsed a year and half ago. That chill in relations was brought on by a CIA contractor's killing of two Pakistanis, the unilateral U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound inside Pakistan and the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani troops in November by NATO forces.
A key element of the talks will be to determine which militant groups can be persuaded to lay down their arms as part of an Afghan peace treaty – a crucial if so far lagging part of the U.S. strategy to stabilize the country as it withdraws forces over the next two years.
"This has to be a joint effort to determine who is a threat ... to determine how do we deal with those who are a threat, and how do we bring in those which are not," said Khar, who was in Washington on her first official visit since being appointed Pakistan's top diplomat last year. "We are willing to work with anyone against any forces which are a threat to peace and stability."
Khar also addressed other contentious points in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, heaping scorn on the doctor who allegedly helped the U.S. track down bin Laden in Pakistan last year and defending her government's decision to declare a national holiday on Friday so people can demonstrate against an American-made Internet video that ridicules Islam.
Lawmakers have been demanding tough Pakistani action on the Haqqani network, which the Obama administration formally designated as a terrorist body on Wednesday. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told The Associated Press in August that he believed a Pakistani attack on the network would occur soon.
A subsidiary of the Taliban and based in the remote North Waziristan region of Pakistan, the Haqqani network is responsible for several attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, including last September's rocket-propelled grenade assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters. American officials estimate it has 2,000 to 4,000 fighters and that it maintains close relationships with al-Qaida.
Khar dismissed the notion that Pakistan had any special responsibility to deal with the Haqqanis, lumping them in with the 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
"We would be happy to send each one of them back and live in peace in Afghanistan," she said. But she refused to say whether her government would be willing in its three-way talks with the U.S. and Afghanistan to commit to taking on the Haqqanis militarily.
The White House declined to comment on the counterterrorism talks, but U.S. officials familiar with the developments saw cause for optimism in the upcoming negotiations, which were worked out by President Barack Obama's chief Afghanistan and Pakistan advisers, Marc Grossman and Doug Lute, as well as Pentagon envoy Peter Lavoy, in a meeting last week with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The "working group" on the militant issue will include top U.S. officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon along with their Pakistani and Afghan counterparts, one current and one former U.S. official said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks publicly.
The U.S. and Pakistan also have been holding direct talks on other counterterrorism issues, including CIA drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Pakistan wants the drone strikes stopped – or it wants to control the drones directly – something the U.S. refuses.
Those bilateral talks so far have produced no breakthroughs, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
The tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, meanwhile, were highlighted Thursday by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul at a U.N. Security Council meeting. Rassoul called on Pakistan to end the shelling of the border province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan, which he said has killed dozens of civilians.
"Failure to end such attacks risks jeopardizing Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relations, with potential negative consequences for necessary bilateral cooperation for peace, security and economic development in our two countries and the wider region," he said.
Many Pakistani Taliban fighters have fled to Kunar and surrounding areas after Pakistan's army pushed them out of its tribal region, taking advantage of the U.S. military's withdrawal of most of its forces from these Afghan border provinces in recent years.
Jan Kubia, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, told the council that the transition of handing off security for the entire country to Afghan forces by 2014 is "on time and on track."
Khar called the formation of the new working group a "turning point" that could produce progress on the other issues.
But she made it clear that Islamabad wasn't simply going to do Washington's bidding, sharply criticizing Panetta for his comments about supposed Pakistani military operations.
Khar said Panetta was speaking "beyond his scope."
"He is obviously welcome to talk about what military action will take place by American troops," Khar said, but not Pakistan's. And she pointed a finger back at the United States for the "hundreds" of militants crossing the border from Afghanistan and "slaughtering our soldiers," including 17 troops who were beheaded recently.
Khar also sought to explain the Pakistani decision to declare Friday a national holiday, saying the "day of loving the prophet" would motivate the peaceful majority to demonstrate their love for the Prophet Muhammad and not allow extremists to turn it into a show of anger against the United States.
On Thursday, more than 2,000 people tried to reach the guarded enclave housing the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to protest the anti-Islam video. Riot police used tear gas and batons against stone-throwing demonstrators, some of whom carried flags from hardline Islamist and al-Qaida-linked groups.
"We are very confident this will lessen the violence," Khar said, but acknowledged: "There will always be elements that will try to take advantage of these things."
And she hit back at criticism from the Obama administration and Congress over the treatment of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who is said to have run a fake vaccination program for the CIA to collect DNA that might verify bin Laden's presence at the compound in Abbottabad where U.S. commandos found and killed him. Afridi was later convicted and sentenced to 33 years for high treason.
"He did not know who he was working for or what he was trying to achieve, so this `great man' who was helping the world by assisting us to capture Osama bin Laden is a myth," Khar said. "He was up for hire by anyone who was paying him," she said, accusing him of links to an Islamist militant group and significantly setting back Pakistani efforts against polio.
"For us, he's no hero, believe me," she said. "He is somebody whose activity has endangered our children." (AP)