Kayani focus of first US-Pak strategic dialogue

Islamabad: Pakistan and the US are set to hold their first strategic dialogue on Wednesday but the focus will squarely be on powerful army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has played a key role in shaping the government's approach to the parleys which are expected to cover Indo-Pak ties and Afghanistan.

Gen Kayani, currently visiting the US at the invitation of Central Command chief Gen David Petraeus, will participate in the ministerial-level strategic dialogue to be chaired by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.

Over the past few weeks, Kayani has taken on a key role in preparing the grounds for the talks.

On March 16, he chaired a meeting of federal secretaries at the army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi to finalise the agenda for the strategic dialogue. He followed this up with a visit to the Foreign Office for further consultations.

Kayani was the guiding force in drawing up a "wish list" for the dialogue, including assurances from the US about protecting Islamabad's interests in Afghanistan, normalising Indo-Pak relations and Pakistan's acceptance as a nuclear weapon state, sources told PTI.

Leading defence analyst Lt Gen (Retd) Talat Masood said Kayani had merely stepped in to "fill a vacuum" in the democratically elected civilian government, whose legitimacy in terms of performance was "very poor."

"Gen Kayani has contributed to presenting Pakistan's viewpoint in a way that has found resonance which was lacking in the past. This has contributed to a shift in the US position, especially in terms of Pakistan's interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and India," Masood told PTI.

India's presence in Afghanistan had given rise to suspicions in Pakistan and Kayani was working to ensure that New Delhi did not "alter" Pakistan's desire for a friendly regime in Kabul, Masood said.

Masood said he was among those who believed the army should remain in the background in the political arena but noted that there was no option but for Kayani to step in because of the challenges confronting Pakistan.

Some, like columnist Mosharraf Zaidi, are sceptical of the army's role in the strategic dialogue.

Despite the US public commitment to democracy in Pakistan, it knows that its interests can be pursued only by the Pakistani military.

"The US trusts the Pakistani military even though that trust has been corroded over the years," Zaidi said.

The US was looking to Pakistan to help fashion an "honourable exit from Afghanistan without making (President Barack) Obama look weak" while Islamabad is looking for material benefits, including its positioning in relation to India, Afghanistan and Iran, he added.

More significantly, Zaidi noted, Pakistan's Parliament had not been involved in preparations for the strategic dialogue, an issue that was settled between the army's General Headquarters and the federal secretaries.

Ahead of tomorrow's dialogue, Kayani has held extensive discussions on defence cooperation with top leaders in the Pentagon.

Kayani yesterday held a meeting with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, which was also attended by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Michele Flournoy.

Over the weekend, Kayani met US Central Command chief Gen Petraeus to "reaffirm the strategic partnership" between the two sides.

Petraeus and Kayani discussed ways to advance cooperation and collaboration in countering extremist violence in Afghanistan and US support for Pakistan's struggle against extremists.

Besides asking the US to speed up the reimbursement of expenses on the war on terror and the supply of military gear, Kayani is expected to press the American civil and military leadership to address Pakistan's concerns about India, diplomatic sources said.