Pentagon clarifies Panetta’s remarks
WASHINGTON: The United States still believes that Pakistani officials were unaware about the presence of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, says the Pentagon while commenting on Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s statement that somebody “somewhere probably had that knowledge”.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the interview, which quoted Mr Panetta as making this claim was old and the US was uncertain about the presence of Osama in Pakistan at the time of the interview.
“Secretary Panetta made clear his belief — which other senior US officials have also expressed — that Osama bin Laden had some kind of support network within Pakistan,” Mr Little said.
“The secretary indicated in the same interview that he had seen no evidence that Bin Laden was supported by the Pakistani government or that senior Pakistani officials knew he was hiding in the Abbottabad compound. Since the Bin Laden operation, Secretary Panetta and his colleagues in the government have been working hard to improve US-Pakistani relations.”
Diplomatic observers in Washington, however, see Mr Panetta’s interview against the backdrop of the ongoing tensions between the United States and Pakistan.
They believe that both countries are entering a decisive phase for redefining their relations after months of tensions, which started with the May 2 US raid on Bin Laden’s compound and reached unprecedented heights with the November 26 Nato strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand.
Pakistan’s new ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, also hinted at this in her first address to the Pakistani-American community this weekend.
“A comprehensive parliamentary review, now in its final phase, will establish new principles for this relationship, resetting the bilateral relationship in a transparent, consistent and predictable manner,” she said.
“The Pakistani government is involved in an internal review of its relations with the United States, and we will wait for them to complete this process,” said US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland while stressing that Washington wanted to rebuild a strong relationship with Islamabad, “which is beneficial to both”.
Diplomatic observers in Washington believe that both sides are now spelling out various issues they want settled before a final framework for the new relationship is defined.
They point out that in the same interview in which Mr Panetta discussed the support network that Osama bin Laden might have had in Pakistan, he also emphasised that Islamabad would “ultimately” have to release Dr Shakil Afridi, a physician who helped the CIA trace the Al Qaeda chief.
“Dr Afridi’s release may be part of the demands the United States would like to be met before a new relationship is finalised,” said a diplomatic observer, “or he may be a bargaining chip for something bigger. We do not know yet”.
Ambassador Rehman, however, did not get into “details” discussed in Washington’s diplomatic circles.
Instead, she stressed an important point that she spoke as a representative of “one united government” including the country’s defence establishment.
“The elected government will stand firm in its resolve to protect our military, when our soldiers are martyred in the line of duty, as they were on the border post of Salala (on Nov 26,) which has triggered a review in our relationship,” she said.
This surprised many in the audience who were not used to seeing the Pakistani ambassador defend the country’s armed forces.
“What we are doing here is to tell our American friends that our future relationship will look after the interests of all government institutions, including the armed forces,” the diplomat said.
“We want to remain friends with the United States and we want a strong relationship that is equal, sovereign, based on mutual respect and shared values,” Ambassador Rehman explained.
She said she had not come to Washington with a grievance narrative, but to explain Pakistan’s desire to become economic and political partner of the United States and not just a battlefield ally.