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US decided to stay engaged with Pakistan

twin towers attackWASHINGTON: Ground rules underlined in a 2001 memo the then US secretary of state Colin Powell sent to former president George W. Bush on Nov 5 that year, laid down the foundation of a strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan: cooperation on terrorism, preventing nuclear proliferation and long-term US assistance.

The memo is included in a set of security documents released on Tuesday by the US National Security Archive, containing exchange of messages among key US officials and departments on the war on terror in the Pak-Afghan region.

Mr Powell’s memo highlights critical changes in US-Pakistan relations since 9/11, including higher levels of cooperation not only on counter-terrorism policy, but also on nuclear non-proliferation, the protection of Pakistani nuclear assets, and economic development.

Mr Powell notes that former military ruler Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s decision to ally with the US comes “at considerable political risk”, as he has “abandoned the Taliban, frozen terrorist assets (and) quelled anti-Western protests without unwarranted force”.

Regarding Afghanistan, the secretary tells president Bush that Pakistan will want to protect its interests and maintain influence in Kabul. “Mr Musharraf is pressing for a future government supportive of its interests and is concerned that the Northern Alliance will occupy Kabul,” the document quotes Mr Powell as telling president Bush.

Mr Powell urges president Bush to assure Mr Musharraf, “We will assist Pakistan through this difficult time” and to “underscore our intent to work with Pakistan closely after the current conflict”.

On Nov 30, 2001, the US Embassy in Islamabad further explains these principles, noting that the United States cannot pursue its counter-terrorism agenda in Afghanistan without Pakistani support and asks Washington to continue to supply extensive aid packages to help America secure its long-term regional interests.

“Suspicions about America are rampant in Pakistan,” the embassy notes. “The message to us has been clear: ‘we helped you in Afghanistan twenty years ago, and then America walked away and deserted us’.”

“This mistrust runs high. Revisionism or not, this is what the man on the street – and particularly the younger generation – appears to believe. Nevertheless “it is in US interest to demonstrate to the Pakistani people that we are a long-term partner.”

The best way to convince the Pakistani public to support a government in Islamabad that is pro-American, the embassy notes, is the “judicious use of our most effective foreign policy tool: foreign aid”.

Another memo shows that Pakistan advised the United States to engage the Taliban in a reconciliation process soon after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but Washington was not interested.

Yet another memo from the then US ambassador in Kabul, Ronald E. Neumann, notes that Pakistani tribal areas momentarily opened to the Pakistani army when “the tribes were overawed by US firepower” after 9/11, but quickly became “no go areas” where the Taliban could reorganise and plan their resurgence in Afghanistan.

The memo also raises “concerns about Pakistani capabilities” to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Fata.

The documents show that after the Sept 11 terror attack, when the US had decided to bomb Afghanistan, former military ruler Musharraf and the ISI tried to persuade the Bush administration to instead hold a dialogue with the Taliban.

But on Sept 13, 2001, US ambassador Wendy Chamberlin “bluntly” tells Gen (retd) Musharraf that there is absolutely no inclination in Washington to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban. “The time for dialogue was finished as of Sept 11.”

Pakistan, however, disagrees. The then ISI chief, Gen Mahmoud Ahmad, tells the ambassador “not to act in anger. Real victory will come in negotiations… If the Taliban are eliminated … Afghanistan will revert to warlordism”.

Pakistan’s primary concern was that the Northern Alliance, backed by India, would return to power in Kabul.

Gen Mahmoud, who was present in Washington on 9/11, also tells the Americans it’s “better for the Afghans” to hunt Osama bin Laden. “We could avoid the fallout.”

Gen Mahmoud travelled to Afghanistan twice, on Sept 17, aboard an American plane, and again on Sept 24, 2001, to discuss the seriousness of the situation with Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Ambassador Chamberlin, however, tells him that negotiations were pointless since Mullah Omar “had so far refused to meet even one US demand”. She tells Gen Mahmoud his meetings with Mullah Omar were fine, but they “could not delay military planning”.

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