ISLAMABAD, March 18: United States on Thursday pledged a long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan, acknowledging Pakistan's key role in the region as a peaceful, moderate, modern Muslim nation.
This commitment was articulated by the visiting US secretary of State Colin Powell at a joint press conference with his Pakistani counterpart Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri after nearly 60-minute delegation-level talks at the Foreign Office here.
"On behalf of President Bush and the American people, I came to say that the United States is committed to a long-term partnership with Pakistan," Secretary Powell declared.
He added: "I believe that in the current environment we have every opportunity to strengthen that relationship in strategic ways as we move forward."
In what was seen as a significant development Secretary Powell announced the US administration's decision to designate Pakistan as a 'major non-NATO ally'. "I advised the Foreign Minister (Khurshid Kasuri) this morning that we will also be making notification to our Congress that will designate Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally for purposes of our future military-military relations," he noted.
Apart from enhancing its stature, the status of a major non-NATO ally would give Pakistan a distinct advantage in terms of obtaining security assistance. In more specific terms it would help Pakistan in acquiring the best available defence material, training, assistance through defence export loan guarantee and priority of delivery for defence articles.
Currently, three Muslim countries have this status - Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan. Australia, Japan and South Korea are among the non-Muslim countries that fall in this category.
Secretary Powell hoped that as the US-Pakistan relationship moved forward there would be opportunity for greater participation at political level, economic level, and military to military activities. "There's no limit to what we can do together," he stated.
He commended Pakistan's "determination and courage" in fighting terrorism, countering extremism, stopping proliferation, reforming education and building stronger democratic institutions.
"Both our countries recognize our alliance is crucial to winning the worldwide war on terror. We must do together more if your region, and if indeed the whole world, is to live in peace," he emphasized. He also mentioned the important role for Pakistan to play in promoting Afghan recovery and reconstruction.
When asked what kind of contingency plans the US administration had for the day President Musharraf would not be the leader of Pakistan given the two recent attempts on his life and the fact that he came to power under a military coup, Mr Powell said: "He (Musharraf) is the President and we will work with him," making it clear that the US relationship with Pakistan did not hinge on any one personality.
"We have no contingency plans as you described them because we are working with the government that is here now," Mr Powell went on to say.
Foreign Minister Kasuri interjected to say that Pakistan is a pluralistic society. "Since it is a pluralistic society with a multi-party system and a parliament in which the opposition is very strong, I don't think there is any such fear that you describe," he told the American journalist who had asked the question.
AID PACKAGE: Secretary Powell said the US assistance package to Pakistan constituted one of the largest US programmes in the world: $3 billion over a five-year period. "That money will help with education reform, basic health care improvements and extending rural access to ... water. These programmes directly benefit the citizens of Pakistan," he said.
He said the US is also providing Pakistan with close to $1.5 billion in debt relief. He announced that the US Exim Bank was expanding its financing options in Pakistan, which would support short-, medium- and long-term financing for the sale of American products when the government of Pakistan guarantees repayment. "This is a sign of the increasing importance of business in the US-Pakistan relationship," he observed.
PAKISTAN-INDIA TIES: Welcoming the thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations he stated: "The US also welcomes the historic decision to launch a comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan: an act of great statesmanship on the part of President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee."
"The US stands with Pakistan as you move forward in this new dialogue relationship with India and as we move forward together to meet the challenges of this century," Secretary Powell held out the assurance.
He said the US will be "watching with great interest" the peace process and try to help "both of its friends" with whom it had very good and strong relationship.
He was evasive when asked if he endorsed the view that Kashmir is a central issue in Indo-Pakistan relations and that without any progress towards settlement of this dispute there could be no durable peace between the two countries.
"I endorse the view that the two sides on the 6th of January agreed to enter into a dialogue on a variety of issues of importance to both sides. A very well structured dialogue that has already begun and has already started to show its success and Kashmir is part of that dialogue," was his guarded response. He added: "I think everyone understands the importance of Kashmir to this dialogue and the importance of many other issues to the dialogue."
KASHMIRIS' RIGHTS: When his attention was drawn to the human rights situation in Kashmir the US Secretary said he had raised the issue with his hosts in New Delhi. He hastened to add: "We know of human rights concerns but this really is an issue that is going to be dealt with by India and Pakistan in this dialogue."
However, he noted: "At any point in this dialogue where we can be helpful we will be helpful but essentially matter that has to be resolved between the two sides or it will not be resolved in a satisfactory way."
On the question of participation of Kashmiris in the peace process, Secretary Powell said: "I'm sure both sides will take into account the needs, desires, aspirations, and concerns of the people of the region."
N-PROLIFERATION: At the outset Mr Kasuri described his talks with Secretary Powell as "very useful" and said issues of concern to both countries were raised and discussed.
On the issue of nuclear proliferation Mr Kasuri said there was satisfaction regarding the success achieved in curbing nuclear black market. "Secretary of State Colin Powell commended Pakistan's readiness to address issues related to nuclear proliferation in a forthright manner," he said.
Responding to a related question Secretary Powell denied having any fresh intelligence on Pakistani government officials, past or present, being involved in nuclear proliferation that he would share with President Musharraf. However, he said questions have arisen as to not only what Dr Khan and his associates might have been doing, was there any other knowledge within the government at the time it was happening. "I think this is a logical and proper question to ask and I'm sure that Pakistani authorities would want it known, as well," he held.
He added: "What we are interested in is going after this network, this network that was providing technology to develop nuclear weapons to some very dangerous countries around the world. And it is in our mutual interest, of Pakistan, the interest of the rest of the world, to make sure the network has been completely pulled up and make sure that all those who were participating in the network in one way or the other have been identified. That's the only way we will know that the network has been completely destroyed ... That is our mutual goal".
At this point, Foreign Minister Kasuri said he had assured Secretary Powell that it was in Pakistan's own interest as a nuclear power that no proliferation takes place and that Pakistan will spare no effort to pull this out, root and branch, wherever this network is.
"There will be complete sharing with the US and with other friendly countries on that issue of non-proliferation. And I explained the particular circumstances in which Dr A.Q. Khan, who enjoyed a total autonomy was able to do that, I went to explain in some detail," the foreign minister said.
Secretary Powell did not give a direct answer to the query whether US officials had contacted or questioned Dr A.Q. Khan and if access to him had been sought.
"This is a Pakistani internal matter, but we are receiving information from them and our services work very well together and I'm confident that there will be full disclosure so that we can work together to make sure, as the minister has said, that this is all pulled up, root and branch," was his response. He underlined that the two countries were cooperating "very well" with each other.
PAKISTANI PRISONERS: Earlier, the foreign minister said he raised the issue of Pakistani prisoners in Afghan jails and in Guantanamo Bay. "I raised this with the secretary today and I am glad to announce that we had an agreement: there will be a screening process," he said. He did not elaborate.
Mr Kasuri also expressed the hope that some of the irritants caused by the travel advisory and restrictive visa for the US would be overcome in the coming months.