LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — In an overture to Washington, Pakistan's prime minister said Monday his country wants to repair U.S. relations pushed close to rupture since NATO airstrikes on the Afghan border killed 24 Pakistani troops last month.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's interview with the Associated Press was the strongest indication yet that Islamabad realizes Pakistan needs an alliance with Washington even as it continues retaliating for the Nov. 26 raid by blocking NATO and U.S. supplies from traveling over its soil into landlocked Afghanistan.
The interview came a day after President Obama called Pakistan's president to tell him that the airstrikes were not deliberate targeting of Pakistani soldiers and that the U.S. was committed to a full investigation. The White House said Mr. Obama and President Asif Ali Zardari reaffirmed their countries' relationship, which it described as "critical to the security of both nations," and agreed to keep in close touch.
Mr. Gilani didn't offer the U.S. anything other than Pakistan's willingness to consider starting over, apparently believing the attack had given Islamabad fresh leverage to dictate terms in what has been an uneasy and largely transactional relationship since Pakistan joined the U.S. war against violent Islamist extremism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Gilani said new ties being negotiated with the U.S. would ensure that the two countries "respected each other's red lines" regarding sovereignty and rules of engagement along the border.
"We really want to have good relations with the U.S. based on mutual respect and clearly defined parameters," he said in the interview at his residence in the eastern city of Lahore, at one point having to put up with a mischievous grandchild using a watch to reflect sunlight onto his face.
"I think that is doable. I think that it won't take long. We are not anti-American. We are part of the system; we have to work with the entire international community."
Despite Mr. Gilani's gentler rhetoric, the gulf between the two nations remains wide. U.S. officials have said the airstrikes have been the most serious blow to a relationship that has been battered by a series of crises this year, exposing its brittleness each time.
Pakistani officials have been demanding more clarity in their relationship with the United States for some time, angry over the CIA presence in the country and the covert but routine drone strikes that kill militants on its side of the border.
A new agreement — even a vague, nonbinding one — may be enough to satisfy domestic critics that Pakistan has extracted something from Washington before agreeing to reopen the supply lines.
The May 2 U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden infuriated the army, which faced humiliation at home for failing to detect the U.S. raid and suspicion abroad after the al Qaeda leader was revealed to have been hiding in an army town for five years.
The Obama administration wants continued engagement even as Pakistan's refusal to attack militant sanctuaries along the border over the past three years has fueled criticism in Congress that the country is a duplicitous ally unworthy of American aid.
Many U.S. officials regard Pakistani cooperation as vital for peace talks with Afghan insurgent leaders to succeed because many of the leaders live in Pakistan and have ties to its security forces. Pakistan, home to 180 million people, has nuclear weapons and a thriving Islamist militant insurgency of its own that is giving support to al Qaeda operatives. Containing that threat requires good intelligence cooperation for several years to come.
Mr. Gilani also said Pakistan remains committed to working with Afghanistan to bring insurgent leaders into talks with the government. That may offer some reassurance to international leaders who discussed Afghanistan's future at a conference Monday in Bonn, Germany.
Islamabad boycotted the conference because of last month's deadly airstrikes, disappointing Afghan and Western leaders.
"I think we have evolved some mechanisms, and we are ready to cooperate," Mr. Gilani said, referring to meetings with Afghanistan's military and intelligence chiefs on a framework for talks. "We are committed (to reconciliation), despite that we are not attending" the conference on Afghanistan, he said.
Speaking in Bonn, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it "was unfortunate that Pakistan didn't participate" but said she was encouraged by Mr. Gilani's remarks, presumably to the AP, that the U.S and Pakistan will continue cooperation.
"I expect that Pakistan will be involved going forward, and we expect them to play a constructive role," Mrs. Clinton said.
The civilian government that Mr. Gilani heads is in many respects subservient to the army, which formulates Afghan policy. Mr. Gilani is unlikely to say anything that does not broadly reflect the thinking of the army.
This year's crises in Pakistan-U.S. ties included an incident in which an American CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis on the street in Lahore. The previous disputes have been patched up, though at a cost of dwindling trust and expectations on both sides.
Pakistan, despite the fiercely anti-American rhetoric of its people, many of its lawmakers and — increasingly after the NATO strike — its army, relies on Washington for military and civilian aid to maintain some parity with its regional foe India, as well as diplomatic legitimacy.
In Mr. Gilani's office, along with photos of his children, are two pictures of the prime minister with then-President George W. Bush in Washington. There's also a signed note from Mr. Bush in 2008 pledging continued support for Mr. Gilani's efforts to bring stability to the country and thanks for "the fine-looking gun" he had brought him as a gift.
Besides boycotting the Bonn talks and blocking supplies, Pakistan gave the U.S. 15 days to vacate Shamsi Air Base, which has been used by American drones to strike militants along the Afghan border. U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter said in a local TV interview that Washington was doing its best to comply with the demand to leave the base.
The move was not expected to significantly curtail drone attacks in Pakistan since Shamsi was used only to service drones that had mechanical or weather difficulties. NATO officials say that the supply-line blockage is not affecting operations but that a stoppage of more than a month would begin to hurt.
Washington and Islamabad have given differing accounts of what led to the airstrikes on the Pakistani army posts last month, in what is at least the third such incident along the porous and poorly defined border since 2008.
U.S. officials have said the incident occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested air support after coming under fire. The U.S. checked with the Pakistan military to see if there were friendly troops in the area and were told there were not, they said.
Pakistan has said the coordinates given by the Americans were wrong — an allegation denied by U.S. defense officials.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan; Zarar Khan and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Anne Gearan in Germany contributed to this report.