Sen. John F. Kerry with Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik in Islamabad. (Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and top Pakistani officials on Monday agreed that Washington and Islamabad would work together against "high-value targets," a move to ease intensely strained relations following this month's killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos.
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a stern message that Washington would not tolerate Pakistan providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda and allied militant groups that target Western interests. Pakistani officials, for their part, have been furious over not being told beforehand of the May 2 raid at the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, which U.S. officials say was necessary to maintain secrecy.
In a statement, the two sides announced that they had agreed to work together "in any future actions against high-value targets in Pakistan."
At a news conference in Islamabad, the capital, Kerry said the U.S. wanted Pakistan to do more to show its commitment to fighting extremism. Some U.S. lawmakers have called for a halt to the billions of dollars in military and economic aid that the U.S. provides Pakistan.
U.S. officials have long asserted that elements within Pakistan's primary intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, maintain links with several Al Qaeda-allied militant groups. One of those groups, the Haqqani network, uses its strongholds in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan to launch attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Another, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is believed to be responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed about 160 people.
"Ultimately, the people of Pakistan will decide what kind of country Pakistan becomes — whether it's a haven for extremists or the tolerant democracy that Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisioned 64 years ago," Kerry said, referring to the leader who fought for Pakistan's creation.
Kerry's visit came at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Pakistani relations, when deep, mutual mistrust has sunk an already tenuous partnership to one of its lowest points.
In the United States, the revelation that Bin Laden had hidden for five years in a sprawling compound within walking distance of Pakistan's top military academy and other military installations in the garrison city of Abbottabad, 35 miles from Islamabad, renewed long-held suspicions that Pakistan's intelligence service, or at least elements within it, either facilitated the Al Qaeda leader's sanctuary or did nothing about it.
In Pakistan, the raid stoked anger among leaders and citizens who viewed the mission as a blatant violation of the country's sovereignty, and saw Washington's decision to not inform Islamabad in advance as a glaring lack of trust in Pakistan as a U.S. ally.
Kerry said Monday that for the sake of operational security, the mission had to be kept secret — even from senior White House officials, top Joint Chiefs of Staff figures, and Kerry himself — to avoid failure.
Noting America's inability to capture Bin Laden in 2001 when he was believed to be hiding in the caves of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, Kerry said: "No president could afford the chance that he could again slip through our hands…. It had to be an American operation, and it had to be as secure as possible."
Other top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders believed to be hiding in Pakistan include Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri and Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Pakistan, the world's only Muslim nation with a nuclear arsenal, faces a resilient homegrown insurgency and a moribund economy heavily dependent on financial aid from the U.S. and international lenders. The U.S., meanwhile, needs Pakistan's cooperation in brokering a reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan also serves as an important transit country for supplies and equipment bound for Western troops in Afghanistan.
Kerry met with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. He did not reveal many details of the agreements with the Pakistani leaders.
But Kerry acknowledged that relations between Pakistan and the U.S. had reached a critical juncture and that a rapprochement was vital to the interests of both countries.
"Both of our countries have sacrificed too many citizens and troops, many too many to consider abandoning this important relationship," Kerry said. "Far too much is at stake here."
Kerry said Pakistan had agreed to hand over the broken tail of a U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid in Abbottabad. The Navy SEAL team that carried out the raid detonated most of the helicopter after it malfunctioned and crashed in the compound, but the tail remained intact. Officials in Washington had grown increasingly concerned that Pakistani military leaders would allow countries such as China access to the tail and its technology.
Pakistani leaders also appeared satisfied with Kerry's assurance that the U.S. had no intention of taking any unilateral actions against the country's nuclear arsenal. Last week, the Islamabad government and its military expressed serious concerns that the Bin Laden raid raised the possibility that Washington could one day carry out a similar mission against Pakistan's nuclear assets.
In the joint statement, Pakistan said it "welcomed the clear affirmation from Sen. Kerry that U.S. policy has no designs against Pakistan's nuclear and strategic assets."