- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2014

With the world’s attention diverted to the hot spots of Iraq, Ukraine and Syria, top Pakistani military commanders slipped into the Pentagon this week as part of a quiet effort to smooth military relations between the two countries.

A senior U.S. military official on Friday confirmed to The Washington Times that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Rashad Mahmood, chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, have spent time together within the halls of the Pentagon and other U.S. government facilities while working toward rebuilding the relationship between their respective countries.

This is the first chairman-to-chairman engagement since 2007, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities surrounding ties between the two nations.

Pentagon officials have been eager to rebuild their relationship with Pakistan’s military elite ever since late 2013, when the political climate in Pakistan shifted to accommodate a new prime minister. Not long after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s former Chief of Army staff, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Chairman Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne retired.

To date, Pentagon officials have only rubbed shoulders with Mr. Sharif and Gen. Mahmood, according to the official. And although this week’s military-to-military engagement was significant, the Pentagon specifically has its eye set on facilitating a meeting between Gen. Dempsey and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif, the official said.

“One of the challenges with the political environment in Pakistan is that, traditionally, the Chief of Army Staff has really been the more powerful of the two,” the official said. “So this is like one of the first steps in building, like, a chairman’s position to something similar to ours, but it will take a period of time.”

Although Gen. Dempsey and Gen. Mahmood discussed intelligence issues during his visit, it is unclear if any of those conversations centered around a recent drone strike that took place in northern Pakistan Wednesday. Six suspected militants were killed when the drone fired missiles at the ground, striking a house and a pick-up truck, according to CNN. For Pakistan, it was the third drone strike within a recent weeks after a six-month lull in air-to-ground operations.

Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for south and southeast asia at The Wilson Center, a Washington based think tank, said the U.S.-Pakistan partnership has improved but remains dysfunctional following a string of milestone political mishaps that “really spun the relationship into a terrible state.”

Mr. Kugelman pointed to January 2011 as a marker for when the rift between the two countries began to deepen. That year, a former contractor for the CIA killed two men in Lahore, Pakistan, and another Pakistani died when the vehicle driven by a person headed to assist that contractor hit and ran over him. Four months later, in May 2011, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs launched a raid from Afghanistan on a compound in Pakistan that was home to Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon.

That, Mr. Kugelman said, is when the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan “hit rock bottom.”

The issue of U.S. drone strikes against suspected terror targets inside Pakistani borders further strained relations over the years, though those incursions have waned.

Even before the most recent fallout, the United States has never enjoyed an ideal relationship with Pakistan due to mutual distrust and divergent interests, but when compared to the past few years, communication improvements have certainly been made, according to Mr. Kugelman.

But that does not mean that the political and military ties between the two countries will remain intact, he said.

“Things are going quite well now, but all it takes is another crisis for the relationship to suffer again,” he said.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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