ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday that both the United States and Pakistan needed to do more to battle Islamist militancy and that relations between the two allies had reached a turning point.
Clinton’s statement at a news conference in Islamabad came after a meeting with Pakistani leaders, as Washington pressed its ally to fully grasp the need to quash Islamist militancy amid tense ties over the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Clinton and Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen met President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as well as Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani in the highest profile visit since U.S. Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader.
“The U.S. and Pakistan have worked together to kill or capture many of these terrorists on Pakistani soil,” Clinton told reporters.
The discovery of the al Qaeda leader in a garrison town just 50 km (30 miles) away from the capital, Islamabad, on May 2 raised fresh doubts about Pakistan’s reliability as a partner in the U.S.-led war on militancy.
Clinton repeated that there was no evidence that anyone at the highest levels of the Pakistan government knew that bin Laden lived close to Islamabad.
Clinton has emphasised the need to continue working closely with Pakistan, but her visit to Islamabad, kept secret for security reasons, came as U.S. lawmakers questioned whether Pakistan should be receiving billions of dollars in aid.
“They have cooperated; we have always wanted more,” a U.S. official told reporters travelling on Clinton’s plane ahead of the surprise visit.
“They have actually, from their perspective, done a lot. What they have never really grasped is how much more they have to do in order to protect themselves and, from our point of view, protect our interests and assist us in ways that are going to facilitate our transition in Afghanistan.”
The Pakistan government welcomed the death of bin Laden but was outraged and embarrassed by the secret raid in the town of Abbottabad, where bin Laden had lived for years, as a breach of its sovereignty.
It was the latest in a series of incidents, from U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan to the arrest of a CIA contractor for killing two Pakistanis, that have strained ties.
There has also been scant evidence of Islamist militancy abating despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
On Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed 34 people outside a police station in the northwestern town of Hangu, and last weekend a group of militants stormed a heavily guarded naval base in the city of Karachi and fought a 16-hour battle with hundreds of soldiers.
The attacks have raised fresh doubts about Pakistan’s ability to quell militancy and protect its nuclear arsenal.
CIA TEAM TO SCOUR BIN LADEN HIDEOUT
In the latest sign of deepening distrust between Washington and Islamabad, Pakistan has told the United States to halve the number of military trainers stationed in the country.
However, the U.S. official said Washington had seen some signs of improved Pakistani cooperation, including the return of the tail section of a helicopter that crashed during the night-time raid in Abbottabad and access to bin Laden’s wives.
In a further apparent move to reduce tension, Pakistani authorities have agreed to allow the CIA to send a forensic team to scour the former hide-out of bin Laden for new clues.
A U.S. official in Washington, who asked for anonymity while discussing sensitive information, said the forensic experts would look for evidence hidden in walls or buried under floors, but there was no guarantee they would find anything.
Many U.S. lawmakers, sceptical that Pakistani officials did not know of bin Laden’s presence, want to cut U.S. aid to Pakistan, which the White House views as vital to counter-terrorism and to hopes of stabilising neighbouring Afghanistan.
Just a day before coming to Pakistan, Clinton said working with Pakistan was a strategic necessity for the United States, even as she pressed Islamabad to act more decisively to counter terrorism.
She praised Pakistan as a “good partner” in global efforts to fight terrorism, though she acknowledged that the two countries have disagreed on how hard to fight al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban fighters and other militants.
“We do have a set of expectations that we are looking for the Pakistani government to meet but I want to underscore, in conclusion, that it is not as though they have been on the sidelines,” she told a news conference in Paris on Thursday.
“They have been actively engaged in their own bitter fight with these terrorist extremists.”