Clinton woos Pakistan on security, aid

ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary  Clinton pushed new economic partnerships yesterday to buttress a  shaky alliance with Pakistan that U.S. officials say is vital to victory in the escalating war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Her two-day visit includes talks with top military and  civilian leaders as well as pledges of economic aid which  Washington hopes will demonstrate to a sceptical public that the  United States is a trustworthy partner in the struggle against  the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The Pakistan and Afghan commerce ministers signed a trade  deal during her visit that the United States also hopes will  help boost cooperation between the countries.

U.S. officials kept details of Clinton’s trip secret prior  to her arrival on Sunday following a wave of bombings and  attacks in Pakistan, which is increasingly targeted by its own  Islamist militants.

Security will be equally tight during her next stop in  Afghanistan, where she will take part in an international  conference tomorrow as the U.S.-led war runs into mounting doubts  in the U.S. Congress.

The conference is aimed at fleshing out Afghan President  Hamid Karzai’s pledge to assume more responsibility for both  security and governance before U.S. President Barack Obama’s  July 2011 target date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces.

The Obama administration sees nuclear-armed Pakistan as a  pivotal player in the struggle against militant Islamist groups  in both countries, but the two sides are divided by a history of  mistrust and sometimes diverging goals over a war that is  increasingly unpopular.

Opinion polls have shown many Pakistanis doubtful about  long-term U.S. intentions, citing examples of abandonment  particularly after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are wary of the role that  Pakistan is playing in Afghanistan and believe it needs to do  more to fight its own homegrown Taliban militants, which  Washington blames for the attempted bombing in New York’s Times  Square on May 1.

“There are still additional steps that we are asking and  expecting the Pakistanis to take. But there is no doubt in  anyone’s mind that should an attack against the United States be  traced to be Pakistani, it would (have) a very devastating  impact on our relationship,” Clinton told the BBC.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special  representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said there was a  “dramatic acceleration” in cooperation between Washington and  Islamabad, but conceded Pakistani public opinion was lagging.
“We only have small indications of improvement in the polls,  but significant examples of improvements in the government,”  Holbrooke told reporters in Islamabad, adding Pakistan’s own  fragile political structure was also stabilising.

“This change is of strategic importance because it’s  enabling us to move forward in our additional efforts on  counter-terrorism,” he said.

Clinton’s meetings with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari  and military chief General Ashfaq Kayani build on talks held in  Washington in March aimed at speeding the flow of both security  information and billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

U.S. officials hope shows of U.S. help on everything from  water and power projects to women’s rights will turn public  opinion in Pakistan, where polls show fewer than one in five  Pakistanis view the United States favourably despite a tripling  of civilian aid to $7.5 billion in the next five years.

Clinton has often expressed a deep personal affection for  Pakistan and is expected to wield her own charisma in the effort  to win support, appearing at several public engagements where  she can pitch the U.S case to local audiences who were widely  hostile during her last visit in October.

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