U.S. envoy explores new approach on Pakistan

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan told an envoy dispatched by President Barack Obama that it wants to be included in talks on any changes in U.S. efforts to defeat al-Qaida and Taliban militants wreaking havoc in its territory and in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials gave no details on any policy discussions during Richard Holbrooke's meetings Tuesday with the prime minister and other leaders, but Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi hailed his visit as a "new beginning" in ties between America and Pakistan.

"This administration has a different approach and starts on a different footing, that was a very pleasant change," he said after meeting Holbrooke, who as White House envoy to the Balkans in the Kosovo conflict earned a reputation as a tough negotiator.

U.S. officials say Holbrooke's first visit to the region as envoy is aimed at gathering information to help form the basis of a new policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan expected before April. After four days in Pakistan, he also is to visit Afghanistan and India. Holbrooke did not address the media.

Pakistan's security forces are struggling to contain a surge in violence blamed on militants sheltering in the rugged northwest close to Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO officers say the insurgents based there are also behind many of the attacks in Afghanistan more than seven years after the fall of the Taliban.

The main supply line for Western troops passes through northwestern Pakistan and is increasingly under attack by militants, while Indian allegations -- supported by the U.S. -- that Pakistani terrorists carried out last year's Mumbai attacks have chilled ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought three wars in the last 60 years.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's civilian leadership is looking increasingly weak and appears unable to find a common voice on how to tackle the militant threat less than a year after it came to power following the U.S.-backed dictatorship of President Pervez Musharraf.

Options being considered by Obama include boosting U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan and conditioning American aid to Pakistan on more solid cooperation in the fight against militants in the border region, believed to be a likely hiding place for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

Qureshi said Pakistan wanted to be included in any discussions on future U.S. policy decisions regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"They (the Americans) feel that for any strategy which is effective in Afghanistan, it cannot be done in isolation. Pakistan has to be on board," Qureshi said.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reiterated Pakistan's long-held objections to U.S. missile strikes against al-Qaida targets in the border region, saying in a statement that he told Holbrooke they were "counterproductive and are promoting anti-American feeling in the area."

The Obama administration has signaled that it is going to continue with the strikes, which officials say have killed several top al-Qaida leaders. The attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis and are used by critics to attack the government.

There are also persistent questions about Pakistan's loyalties in the fight against terror, with critics saying that elements of the military and intelligence agencies either tolerate or actively support militants the state once cultivated to deploy against India.

On Monday, Polish officials said they suspected that militants behind the apparent beheading of one of their citizens last weekend in the border region enjoy the favor of some officials in the Pakistani government, a charge denied by Islamabad.

Authorities received a video Sunday purportedly showing the beheading of Polish engineer Piotr Stanczak by Pakistani militants. Without a body, Polish authorities have not been able to officially confirm Stanczak's death, but they have said the seven-minute video appeared authentic.

Poland's Senate speaker, Bogdan Borusewicz, called off a visit by his Pakistani counterpart this week because of the apparent beheading. He said the decision was not an unfriendly gesture toward Pakistan, but was made after considering "the situation in which our countryman was murdered."

Poland has asked the U.S. for help in hunting down the militants and has offered a $290,000 reward for information leading to their arrest, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Tuesday.

Several foreigners have been attacked in recent months, including John Solecki, an American worker for the U.N. who was abducted in the southwestern city of Quetta in early February.

Associated Press writer Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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