ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistan’s new premier has vowed to tackle Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but the United States will remain nervous about the commitment of this frontline state in the “war on terror”, analysts say.
With the power of stalwart US ally President Pervez Musharraf eroding fast, Washington sent two special envoys to Islamabad last week in a bid to woo new Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his government.
Gilani, who is from the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, set out his policies to parliament on Saturday and said that rising Islamic militancy was the biggest threat to the nuclear-armed nation.
But his offers to negotiate with militants who renounce violence has caused jitters among US officials, who are already reeling from the loss of the “one-stop shop” they had in the form of former dictator Musharraf.
“The US nervousness will continue for some time till they recognise the political changes in Pakistan,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
“The Americans will closely mointor what Pakistan is doing against terrorism — they have strong reservations about negotiation,” said Askari, who is teaching at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
A key issue with the new Pakistani government will be its tolerance for unilateral US missile strikes on militant hideouts in its mountainous tribal badlands bordering Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reported last week that the United States was escalating such strikes amid fears that Gilani’s administration will curtail such attacks.
The strikes followed a “tacit understanding” with Musharraf and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani that permits US strikes on foreign rebels in Pakistan, but not against Pakistani Taliban, the Post quoted officials as saying.
A senior partner in the new coalition government, former premier Nawaz Sharif, warned the US envoys who came last week that it was unacceptable for Pakistan to become a “murder-house” for the sake of US policies.
“The US appears to be nervous on negotiations because it thinks they give unnecessary space to the extremists. Further, the US wanted greater freedom itself to undertake direct military action in the tribal areas,” Askari said.
“However the recent visit of the US diplomats to Pakistan has made it clear that the US will have to talk to the political forces and the parliament for policy on terrorism rather than rely on one person — Musharraf.”
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher spent four days in Pakistan last week.
Political solutions to the violence are high on Gilani’s agenda, with his speech on Saturday promising a special package of reforms for the tribal areas as part of a broad-based strategy to fighting terrorism.
“We are ready to talk to all those people who give up arms and are ready to embrace peace,” Gilani said to loud support from MPs on Saturday.
But officials from Bhutto’s party said newspaper editorials describing anger at the timing of the US visit in the week that Gilani was elected by parliament were “overcooked”.
Political commentator and columnist Shafqat Mahmood said the aims of both US and Pakistani officials remained the same — to tackle extremism.
Gilani’s speech “shows fighting terrorism is a very important priority for the new government and the United States should welcome this statement,” Mahmood told AFP.
But he warned: “Of course, words will have to be matched with action.”
Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan’s respected English-language Daily Times newspaper and a political analyst, said Gilani’s statements would ultimately reassure Islamabad’s Western allies.
“It will allay the concerns of the international community regarding the new government’s commitment to fighting terrorism while giving enough leverage to the new political set-up to follow its broad-based counter-terrorism strategy,” he told AFP.