Pakistani army chief in talks with US defense chiefs

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 22, 2010 17:50 hrs

Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani meets with US defense chiefs on Monday at the start of a week of wide-ranging talks between Washington and Islamabad, officials said.

The Obama administration views Kayani as a crucial figure behind Pakistan's stepped-up offensive against Islamist militants along the border with Afghanistan.

Kayani was due to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates and top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, on Monday afternoon after having held talks on Sunday at Central Command headquarters outside of Tampa, Florida.

Kayani and the head of Central Command, General David Petraeus, "discussed ways to advance cooperation and collaboration in countering extremist violence in Afghanistan, as well as US support for Pakistan's struggle against violent extremists at home," US Central Command said in a statement.

Petraeus, who oversees US forces in Afghanistan and Central Asia, "commended Kayani on Pakistan's hard-fought gains" against the Taliban in the Swat valley and the military's "impressive" counter-insurgency campaign, it said.

The Pakistani general was due to hold a dinner meeting on Tuesday evening with Mullen, who has made a point of cultivating relations with Kayani.

The Pakistani army chief's visit is part of talks this week touted by the administration as an effort to build a deeper relationship with Pakistan, which has long seen Washington as interested only in securing its military cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The talks chaired by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi will cover not just security but also economic development, water and energy, education, communications and public diplomacy, and agriculture, US officials said.

In a visit to Islamabad in January, Gates said Washington had let down Pakistan in the past and vowed to restore trust between the two countries.

Kayani's visit comes after US officials praised Pakistan for the arrest of the Afghan Taliban's second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and follows reports of other Taliban figures captured in Pakistan.

But the former UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has said the arrests in Pakistan had closed a secret channel of communications with Taliban figures and undermined the Afghan government's attempts to negotiate a settlement with the insurgents.

A spokesman for the Afghan president also said the arrests had a "negative impact" on efforts to broker a peace deal with the Taliban.

Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime, is keen to shape any reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and harbors concerns about arch-rival India's influence in Afghanistan.