WASHINGTON - The Pentagon said that Defence Secretary Chuk Hagel during his talks with Pakistani leadership stressed the need for keeping the ground supply routes out of Afghanistan open as American troops pullout, and a leading US newspaper, quoting officials, denied reports that he had threatened to cut-off aid if Islamabad failed to do so.
Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog said Hagel's meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, Finance Minister Ishaaq Dar, Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif, National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz and other officials on Monday, provided an opportunity to advance a ‘broad, robust, and continuous United States–Pakistan dialogue on topics of shared concern, including security and stability in the region.’
Citing unnamed Pentagon officials, The New York Times said that Hagel did not issue a threat that the Defence Department would cut-off the next round of payments. Instead, the officials said, Hagel indicated that because the funds are subject to congressional oversight, inaction by the Pakistani government to guarantee safe transit for American and allied shipments could again result in a freeze.
"This is obviously a critical issue for the Department of Defence and to the United States,” a Pentagon official was quoted as saying by the Times. “And one of the issues that is critical to the Pakistanis is the continuation of Coalition Support Funds.”
But here is how the formal Pentagon statement put it, "Secretary Hagel raised the importance of keeping the ground supply routes out of Afghanistan open and thanked the prime minister for his government's continued support. They discussed that while the GLOCs (Ground Lines of Communication) are open, noting goods are flowing through the Chaman Gate, protests and security issues on the Pakistan side have impacted the ability of goods to move through the Torkham Gate. The prime minister indicated that Pakistan would address the issue."
According to the Times report, Hagel raised Washington’s concerns over havens inside Pakistan for militant organisations that have killed American and allied troops in Afghanistan. The defence secretary, it said, specifically cited the Haqqani network, which is believed to be abetted covertly by some Pakistani intelligence officials in an effort to assert influence in Afghanistan.
“The Haqqani network is a major concern for the United States,” another senior Pentagon official was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “The security of our forces is paramount. The Haqqanis pose a threat.”
Senior Pentagon officials, speaking on diplomatic ground rules of anonymity, said there were no breakthroughs, and no concessions by either side on counterterrorism issues, except for a shared concern on the threat and agreement on the need to continue discussions.
Washington froze Islamabad’s financial aid in 2011, as the countries’ relationship reached a low point with the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and an errant American air strike that killed 24 Pak border patrol troops. The United States recently restored funding to underwrite Pakistani counterterrorism efforts, including operations against militants in the regions along the Afghan border.
Pakistan has received more than $10 billion in Coalition Support Funds since 2001, making it the largest recipient under the programme, it was pointed out. In October, the United States disbursed $322 million for the period of July through September 2012, which was frozen when relations soured. The current request for October through December of 2012 is being processed but has not yet been paid.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, the director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, a policy research centre in Islamabad, reiterated the importance of Afghanistan as an issue between Pakistan and the United States.
“The focus is on understanding which way Pakistan wants to go about Afghanistan and on regional issues, especially negotiations with the Taliban,” Rais was quoted as saying, “and what role Pakistan will play in 2014 and beyond in stabilising Afghanistan and protecting international interests there.”
Despite often-strained ties, the Obama administration has continued to seek Pakistani military and intelligence cooperation on counterterrorism issues, The New York Times said.
Pentagon officials said that strengthening military-to-military relations could act as ballast to steady a relationship with a nuclear-armed nation in a turbulent corner of the world.
Hagel’s visit came amid changes at the top of Pakistan’s powerful military, the report pointed out. "The prime minister chose General Raheel Sharif last month as army chief of staff, the most powerful military position in Pakistan. Because General Sharif (who is not related to the prime minister) had not been viewed as the military leadership’s preferred candidate, his selection was seen as an assertion of independence by the prime minister."