WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama warned on Thursday that the United States would not feel comfortable in a long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan if it did not protect US interests as well.
In a 90-minute news conference at the White House, the US leader focused mainly on domestic issues, chiding banks, showing irritation with the Wall Street and urging lawmakers to help him create jobs.
This was Mr Obama’s first news conference since his former military chief Admiral Mike Mullen told a Senate hearing two weeks ago that Pakistan was encouraging the Haqqani network of militants to attack US and Nato targets in Afghanistan.
A journalist pushed aside the domestic agenda and asked President Obama if he agreed with Admiral Mullen’s accusation that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI had used the Haqqani network as a virtual arm.
“And what, if any consequences, up to and including a cut-off of aid, would you be willing to consider?” the journalist asked.
“There’s no doubt that we’re not going to feel comfortable with a long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan if we don’t think that they’re mindful of our interests as well,” said the president.
“We will constantly evaluate our relationship with Pakistan based on (what it does) to protect Americans and our interests,” he added.
“And there is no doubt that there’re some connections that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have with certain individuals that we find troubling. And I’ve said that publicly and I’ve said it privately to Pakistani officials as well.”
The remarks alarmed Pakistani diplomats in Washington who were recently warned by their lobbyists that the US anger with Pakistan’s alleged links to the Haqqanis was not over yet.
The lobbyists also warned the Pakistanis not to be too comfortable with recent conciliatory statements from the White House and the State Department as the Americans were not going to give up their demand for a military operation against the group.
“Yes, there is some anger, some misgivings about the Pakistani military and the ISI in this country,” said former president Pervez Musharraf, who is currently in Washington with a plan to meet more than a dozen senior US lawmakers and to persuade them to soften their attitudes towards Pakistan. “They do see a link between the ISI and the Haqqanis,” said Mr Musharraf. “Now it is up to us to help them get rid of these misconceptions.”
President Obama’s remarks, however, show that those lobbying for Pakistan “have their work cut out for them,” as a senior Pakistani diplomat said. “With respect to Pakistan … my number one goal is to make sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the US homeland and cannot affect US interests around the world,” Mr Obama said. “And we have done an outstanding job, I think, in going after, directly, Al Qaeda in this border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The US president acknowledged that the Americans could not have been as successful as they have been without the cooperation of the Pakistan government.
“On a whole range of issues they have been an effective partner with us,” he said.
But Mr Obama complained that the Pakistanis were dragging their feet in Afghanistan.
The main US goal, he said, was to be able to transition out of Afghanistan and leave a stable government behind that was independent, respectful of human rights, and democratic.
“And Pakistan, I think, has been more ambivalent about some of our goals there,” he said.“I think that they have hedged their bets in terms of what Afghanistan would look like. And part of hedging their bets is having interactions with some of the unsavoury characters who they think might end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces have left,” Mr Obama said.
“What we’ve tried to persuade Pakistan of is that it is in their interest to have a stable Afghanistan; that they should not be feeling threatened by a stable, independent Afghanistan.”
To ease tensions between the two countries, the US had tried to get conversations between Afghans and Pakistanis going more effectively than they have been in the past, he said. “But we’ve still got more work to do.”
Mr Obama also showed a rare understanding of Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, pointing out that “they see their security interests threatened by an independent Afghanistan, in part because they think it will ally itself to India and Pakistan still considers India their mortal enemy.”
The US, he said, was also trying to allay these fears.
“Part of what we want to do is actually get Pakistan to realise that a peaceful approach towards India would be in everybody’s interests and would help Pakistan actually develop,” he said.“Because one of the biggest problems we have in Pakistan right now is poverty, illiteracy, a lack of development, civil institutions that aren’t strong enough to deliver for the Pakistani people.”
That’s the environment that encourages extremism to grow, said Mr Obama, adding that the US was trying to make Pakistan realise that militancy “doesn’t just threaten our efforts in Afghanistan but also threatens the Pakistani government and the Pakistan people.”
Asked if the US could stop its assistance to push Pakistan to accept its demands, Mr Obama said his administration had “a great desire” to help the Pakistani people strengthen their own society and government.