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US takes up Pakistan military wish-list

Washington: The United States said Tuesday it was in talks with Pakistan about new military assistance as part of a partnership against Islamic extremism, in a step sure to trigger unease in India.

The United States and Pakistan on Wednesday open their latest “strategic dialogue,” an initiative by President Barack Obama’s administration to show Pakistan’s skeptical public it is ready to take up its concerns.

Frank Ruggiero, the US deputy special representative on Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the Pentagon and the Pakistani military have been talking about a framework for security assistance.

“We specifically worked with the Pakistanis over the summer to identify what would be the types of military equipment and so on,” Ruggiero told reporters. “That will be a topic of discussion at the strategic dialogue.”

The US Congress last year approved a five-year, 7.5 billion-dollar package for Pakistan aimed at building schools, infrastructure and democratic institutions in hopes of denting the appeal of Islamic extremists.

Pakistan’s powerful military initially voiced misgivings, saying the aid came with too many conditions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March promised to work on a “multi-year security assistance package.”

Pakistan was once the chief supporter of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime but switched sides after the September 11, 2001 attacks, becoming the front-line US partner in the war against Islamic extremist groups.

India has begrudgingly accepted US civilian aid to Pakistan but voiced fears over military help, which it fears would target India instead of Islamists. India and Pakistan have fought three full-fledged wars since independence in 1947.

Obama next month pays his first visit to India, hoping to show the world’s largest democracy that he wants a deeper relationship and is not preoccupied by Pakistan and China.

Ruggiero said the United States considered its ties with India and Pakistan to be “distinct bilateral relationships.”

“The United States committed to a strategic dialogue with the government of Pakistan, a strategic partnership, and we also have a strategic relationship with the government of India,” he said.

The United States has hailed Pakistan’s commitment to fighting its homegrown Taliban, including launching a major offensive in its tribal areas.

But New Delhi has pressed for Pakistan to do more against anti-Indian extremists such as those linked to the bloody 2008 assault on Mumbai. A recent White House report to Congress also faulted Pakistan for avoiding direct conflict with Afghanistan’s Taliban, in an apparent attempt to preserve influence in the neighboring country.

“I think we see an unprecedented level of cooperation from the Pakistanis in taking on insurgents,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

“That having been said, throughout this process and throughout these meetings this week, there will be opportunities for us to detail for the Pakistanis what more must be done,” Gibbs said.

The three-day strategic dialogue culminates Friday in talks between Clinton and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Kayani will also take part and hold talks at the Pentagon.

Qureshi, speaking Monday at Harvard University, said that Pakistan was committed to joining the United States “to destroy the terrorist cancer that threatens all of civilization.”

“But we are first and foremost, like every nation on earth, committed to preserving our national interest,” Qureshi said.

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