US vows to improve ties with Pakistan, as ISI chief begins visit

WASHINGTON - As ISI Chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam begins his visit to the United States, a State Department spokesman has renewed Washington’s pledge to improve its relationship with Pakistan, noting that the two countries Tuesday signed an agreement that would allow Nato supplies into Afghanistan.
“We’re pleased by this MoU (memorandum of understanding), but our relationship, we continue to get it back on track and look to the future, and we have a number of issues to continue to work through with our Pakistani counterparts,” Patrick Ventrell said at the daily briefing.
But he parried a question on Gen Islam’s visit, saying in general terms, “we’ll continue to work to improve our relationship.”
The spokesman said the conclusion of the agreement - for the transitive cargo to and from Afghanistan – “demonstrates increased transparency and openness between our governments in respect of Pakistan’s sovereignty as requested by their parliament.”
At the briefing, the State Department spokesman noted that the agreement “also underscores our shared commitment to support Afghanistan and regional stability.”
According to media reports, the talks between the ISI chief and the senior American officials are expected to focus on counterterrorism issues, intelligence sharing and controversial drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas. A dispatch in The New York Times talks about “a vague air of mystery” surrounding Gen Islam, who is visiting Washington in his official capacity for the first time.
“Beyond the bare details of his resume, American officials acknowledge they know little of General Islam, a tall man in his 50s with a flop of black hair, except that he comes across as taciturn, thoughtful and passionate about sports,” the newspaper said in a dispatch from Islamabad.
“His first trip to the United States in 1984, he fondly told one American official recently, was to attend the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. A decade later, while attending a course at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he adapted his cricket skills for use on a local baseball team,” the Times said.
“He seemed to be saying, ‘Look, I can master your sport, too,’” the official noted, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a private conversation.
“Common ground may be harder to find, though, when General Islam meets with American officials, including David H Petraeus, the Central Intelligence Agency director, at a time of American frustration and distrust toward the ISI.”
Citing Pakistani and American officials, the Times said, “From Wednesday, Petraeus and General Islam will seek to rebuild a counterterrorism relationship that has severely frayed.” “Petraeus will try to forge a relationship with him,” one senior Obama administration official said. “We’ve got business to do. Let’s get on with it.”
The dispatch said, “Since his appointment to Pakistan’s pre-eminent intelligence post in March, General Islam has maintained a conspicuously low profile in Pakistan. After being featured in a handful of newspaper articles filled with starchy compliments typically reserved for powerful generals, he largely disappeared from view - by most accounts, a deliberate strategy.
“In contrast with General Pasha, who was known for his sharp-tongued, sometimes impassioned private outbursts, General Islam is described as a low-profile operator, happy to take a back seat in meetings.” “He is cool as a cucumber,” an unnamed serving ISI officer was quoted as saying.
But he has maintained General Pasha’s short rein on CIA activities in Pakistan.
The Times cited one senior American official as saying the ISI now treats its American counterparts with deep hostility. CIA visas are frequently refused, and its officials are periodically stopped and searched.
Meanwhile, Pakistani employees of the American Embassy and consulates have come under intense intimidation: subjected to strip searches, kept in prison for weeks, induced to “turn” against America, and sometimes threatened with weapons, the official said. “It’s Moscow rules,” he was quoted as saying. “The ISI has become very KGB-like - but without the restraint.”
A senior ISI official, according to the newspaper, denied such accusations, and blamed the CIA for souring a once-close relationship through displays of arrogance. During the January 2011 controversy over Davis, General Pasha was furious that the former CIA director, Leon E Panetta, had initially denied that Davis worked for the agency.
It said, “Last summer the previous CIA station chief, who had stormy relations with General Pasha, left his post after just five months, ostensibly for health reasons. He has since been replaced with an undercover officer who officials from both sides say is more open to strengthening the CIA’s relationship with the ISI.”
In his talks in Washington, the ISI official said, General Islam will press the C.I.A. to stop its drone strike campaign in the tribal belt. Instead, he will propose that the United States upgrade Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 warplanes so that it can do the same job - a proposal one Washington official called a “nonstarter.”
General Islam will also request American help in halting cross-border incursions by the Pakistani Taliban from their bases in Afghanistan - a growing Pakistani concern that last week caused testy exchanges between Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, and a senior Obama administration official at a conference in Colorado. The Times said, “General Islam has a strong military pedigree, and many analysts see him as a favourite to succeed the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, when he steps down in late 2013.
“He lauds from a stout military clan in the army’s Punjabi heartland: his father and brothers were officers, while two uncles retired as three-star generals. Unusually for an ISI chief, he has experience in espionage: Between 2008 and 2010 he ran the ISI’s internal wing, which oversees security inside Pakistan. “For Americans, however, it is General Islam’s attitude toward the situation in Afghanistan that is the most pressing unknown.”

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