NEW YORK - Officials of Pakistan and the United States Friday traded thinly-veiled barbs at a conference in Colorado over their countries’ troubled relationship, drone attacks and the so-called militant safe havens on Pakistani territory.
The first flash point was Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician who was sentenced to 33 years in prison for helping the Central Intelligence Agency track down Osama bin Laden, who was eventually killed by US Navy SEALs in May 2011.
CBS correspondent Steve Kroft led off the discussion on that issue by asking provocatively if Afridi’s punishment demonstrated that the Pakistanis “have more loyalty to Osama bin Laden than they do to the United States.”
“In a word, I’d call it outrageous,” Lt-Gen Karl Eikenberry (retd), who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, was quoted as saying by Politico, an online US newspaper.
Defending Islamabad’s position, Ambassador Rehman said that Afridi’s conviction demonstrated that rule of law in Pakistan is alive and well. “We are working according to a constitutional norm,” she said, joining the conference panel via a video link from Washington.
The Pakistani envoy said Afridi “was contracting with a foreign intelligence agency without any permission. He was contracting with militant groups who were beheading our soldiers,” she said, referring to the acts underlying his conviction. “He had no clue that he was engaged in a fight against or search for Osama bin Laden.”
Rehman said Pakistan shouldn’t receive any more criticism for militants in its difficult-to-govern areas than Afghanistan does for similar hideouts on its territory.
She said that Pakistani Taliban fighters, who have taken refuge in two remote provinces in eastern Afghanistan, were increasingly carrying out rocket attacks and cross-border raids against Pakistan.
“These are critical masses of people that come in; this is not just potshots,” Ms Rehman said. She said that on 52 different occasions in the last eight months Pakistan had provided to American and NATO commanders in Afghanistan the locations from which the militants were attacking, to no avail.
“We’re feeling a little bit of blowback from ISAF redeployments along the border,” Ms Rehman said, referring to the NATO command in Afghanistan.
Her statement that drew a sharp response from Lute, the White House adviser. “There’s no comparison of the Pakistani Taliban’s relatively recent, small-in-scale presence inside Afghanistan…to the decades-long experience and relations between elements of the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban. So to compare these is simply, I think, unfair,” Lute said bluntly.
Pat came Ambassador Rehman’s reply: Pakistan doesn’t have the option of ‘walking away from’ the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, the way the US may end up doing.
And after Lute parried a question about drone strikes in Pakistan by referring generically to US-Pakistan ‘cooperation’, Rehman said it is time for that sort of ‘robotic warfare’ to end.
“The drone strikes now see diminishing returns,” Rehman said, while acknowledging that up to this point they have helped kill dangerous militants. “We will be seeking an end to drone strikes and there will be no compromise on that.”
“This adds to the pool of recruits we’re fighting against,” she added.
“We don’t welcome or sanctuary foreign fighters on our soil…. There is no question now of hedging bets,” Rehman insisted, before adding her own memorable retort: “This is a new Pakistan. Catch up, gentlemen.”
The New York Times presented the story this way, “Tensions flared between the United States and Pakistan, as two top officials traded accusations of doing too little to combat Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”