- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The White House was tight-lipped about the details of a Tuesday meeting between President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the status of negotiations over the CIA’s drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan.

After the meeting, which took place Tuesday in Seoul during the last day of an international nuclear summit, neither President Obama nor Mr. Gilani mentioned drone strikes, and neither took questions from reporters.

While Mr. Obama acknowledged the strained relations between the two countries, he said he welcomed the Pakistani parliament’s review of the “nature of this relationship.”

“I think it’s important for us to get it right,” he said. “I think it’s important to have candid dialogue to work through these issues in a constructive fashion and a transparent fashion.”

Mr. Gilani thanked Mr. Obama for the praise and for respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty.

“We are committed to fight against extremism and terrorism,” Mr. Gilani said, underscoring the importance of a peaceful transition in Afghanistan.

During a briefing with reporters after the meeting, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes did not acknowledge the drone program specifically but said the two leaders discussed ways to continue working to fight al Qaeda.

“In terms of counterterrorism, without getting into any specific programs or operations, what I would say is that we discussed ways in which we can ensure that we have an ongoing dialogue at all levels of our government,” Mr. Rhodes told reporters during a briefing.

The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that U.S. officials in January had offered key concessions to Pakistan’s spy chief that included advance notice and limits on the types of targets in a bid to save the CIA’s drone campaign.

The concessions came after warnings from Pakistani officials that they would no longer tolerate independent drone strikes on Pakistani territory and would cease carrying out joint raids with U.S. counterterrorist teams inside their country, as they had in the past. Instead, the Pakistani officials want the U.S. to hand over its intelligence so Pakistani forces can pursue the targets themselves.

Tension between the two uneasy allies has never been higher following a string of incidents that have increased friction and eroded trust, including the 2011 discovery of Osama bin Laden at a compound inside the country and a border incident later that year in which U.S. forces returned fire they thought came from a hostile post, killing 24 Pakistani troops.

Last week, the Pakistani parliament demanded that the U.S. cease all unilateral actions, including drone strikes, as part of a “total reset” in the relationship.

Mr. Rhodes acknowledged the Pakistani parliament’s actions and tried to stress that Mr. Obama and Mr. Gilani had a respectful discussion about it.

“I think the tone was one of mutual respect and a sincere interest in gaining a better understanding of each other’s respective positions, and trying to determine the best way in which the United States and Pakistan can work through the types of issues that are being discussed in the Pakistani parliament, and again, that represent the interest of both countries,” he said during the briefing with reporters.

The two leaders also discussed the Afghan-led reconciliation process. The Obama administration remains open to talks that would support reconciliation with rebel Taliban forces, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday. The Taliban pulled out of preliminary negotiations after the burning of the Koran by American troops and the murder of 16 civilians at the hands of a U.S. soldier.

In February, Mr. Gilani urged Taliban leaders and other Afghan insurgent groups to take part in a peace process to end the decade of war.

During their Tuesday meeting, the turmoil over the Koran burnings and killings of 16 Afghan civilians didn’t come up, Mr. Rhodes said. Instead, Mr. Obama and Mr. Gilani focused on the need to continue the dialogue between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I think the president made it clear that he believes that it’s important for Pakistan to continue to be a part of that discussion and to continue to work to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process,” Mr. Rhodes said. “And Prime Minister Gilani very much committed himself and his government to support those efforts going forward as well.”

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