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Ties with Pakistan at a critical stage

WASHINGTON — The security relationship between the United States and Pakistan has sunk to its lowest level since the two countries agreed to cooperate after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, endangering counterterrorism programs that depend on the partnership, the Washington Post reports, quoting unnamed U.S. and Pakistani officials.

Both sides say further deterioration is likely as Pakistan's military leadership comes under unprecedented pressure from within its ranks to reduce ties with the United States. The Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, was jeered last month by fellow officers who demanded in a meeting that he explain why Pakistan supports U.S. policy.

Outspokenness by battalion commanders is virtually unheard of in the strict Pakistani military hierarchy, and open criticism of Kiyani "is something no Pakistani military commander has ever had to face before," another U.S. official said. "Nobody should underestimate the pressure he's now under."

Tension over U.S.-Pakistani relations is building on the U.S. side, as well. Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed outrage that a number of Pakistanis who had helped gather intelligence for the CIA about Osama bin Laden's compound have been arrested.

The New York Times, which first reported the arrests of five Pakistani informants Tuesday, said an army major was detained who copied license plates of cars visiting the al-Qaida chief's compound in Pakistan in the weeks before the raid.

A Western official in Pakistan confirmed that five Pakistanis who fed information to the CIA before the May 2 operation were arrested by Pakistan's top intelligence service.

But Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied an army major was arrested, saying the report was "false and totally baseless." Neither the army nor Pakistan's spy agency would confirm or deny the overall report about the detentions.

The group of detained Pakistanis included the owner of a safe house rented to the CIA to observe bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, an army town not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, a U.S. official said. The owner was detained along with a "handful" of other Pakistanis, said the official.

The fate of the purported CIA informants who were arrested was unclear, but American officials told the New York Times that CIA Director Leon Panetta raised the issue when he visited Islamabad last week to meet with Pakistani military and intelligence officers.

Pakistan is a key player in the administration's war strategy in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials are under similar pressure at home to take a tough line.

In a congressional hearing Wednesday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, "We see word that our putative ally arrested five people under the suspicion that they helped the United States to get Osama bin Laden, after publicly saying, of course, they wanted us to get Osama bin Laden."

"Most governments lie to each other," Gates responded tersely. "That's the way business gets done."

Ties with Pakistan at a critical stage 06/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 12:25am]
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