ISI chief meets US officials to mend ties: Report

Islamabad: Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha`s recent visit to Qatar, home to the US Central Command`s regional headquarters, has sparked speculation about an `intelligence back channel` between Pakistan and the US to reset troubled security cooperation.

Pasha, whose overseas trips are not officially announced, returned on Wednesday from a trip to Qatar that was "authorised" by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Dawn newspaper reported today. A western diplomatic source told the daily that Pasha met US officials during his stay in Qatar.

Pasha`s visit followed the release of the US Central Command`s preliminary report on the cross-border NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 26. The attack took Pakistan-US ties to a new low.

Central Command chief Gen James Mattis initially planned to visit Islamabad this week to share with the Pakistani military authorities findings of the probe. Mattis had to cancel the visit after his hosts expressed their inability to receive him because of the situation in Pakistan, where anti-America sentiments are running high and a parliamentary body is working to review the terms of engagement with the US, the report said.

Gilani had himself disclosed that Pasha was visiting Qatar during a media interaction earlier this week. The premier said he had approved the trip. Gilani is set to travel to Doha next month.

The Dawn quoted diplomatic observers as saying that indications from Islamabad and Washington pointed towards an impending thaw in relations that went into a free fall after the NATO attack. Pakistan closed all NATO supply routes and forced the US to vacate Shamsi airbase that was reportedly being used by CIA-operated drones.

Gen Mattis has directed the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to improve ties with Pakistan and the Pentagon has hinted at possible punitive action against those responsible for the border incident, something desired by the Pakistan Army. However, the Pakistan Army has rejected the findings of the US probe.

The Foreign Office on Thursday said efforts were being made to mend ties with the US, which had seen "many ups and downs" this year. "We are on speaking terms with the US. Doubtless there are problems but we are trying to put our relations on a track that is transparent and in sync with our aspirations," Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit told a news briefing.

Diplomatic observers are also attaching importance to the timing of Afghanistan`s withdrawal of an objection to Qatar hosting a Taliban office because the announcement came while the ISI chief was in Qatar, supposedly talking to US officials.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday agreed to the setting up of the Taliban office in Qatar, a move that he had opposed all along.

Cooperation between the US and Pakistan for Afghan reconciliation had come to a halt after the NATO air strike. Pakistan boycotted the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan earlier this month and a trilateral Pakistan-US-Afghanistan meeting was cancelled because of the strained ties.