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Pakistan, U.S. attempt to rebuild trust during meetings in Washington

After months of reduced cooperation between Pakistani and American intelligence agencies in the battle against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, top officials of the two nations have been meeting in Washington this week to overcome a deep sense of mistrust intensified in January by a murder case involving a CIA contractor.

Since the contractor's arrest, Pakistan has asked the U.S. to scale back the number of CIA operatives based in the country and to provide detailed information on the assignments of the agency's remaining personnel, said a senior Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. drone missile strikes in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, which the Pakistani government publicly condemns but tacitly approves, have also declined sharply since contractor Raymond Davis' arrest. Only 19 strikes have been carried out this year, most of them in the North Waziristan tribal region, where the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network is based. In 2010, the U.S. conducted 117 strikes, more than doubling the total from the previous year.

Pakistan now wants the U.S. to further reduce the frequency of drone strikes, a request motivated largely by a March 17 attack in North Waziristan that Pakistani officials say killed more than 40 civilians, many of them tribal elders meeting about a dispute over a local mine. The U.S. maintains that the strike targeted only militants.

Pakistan's demands were raised this week in Washington during meetings between CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and the chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "The Pakistanis have asked for more visibility into some things, and that request is being talked about, along with a host of other topics, including ways to further expand the partnership.

"The bottom line is that joint cooperation is essential to the security of the two nations," the official said. "The stakes are too high."

Relations between the CIA and Inter-Services Intelligence have long been tenuous because of past ISI support of Afghan militants. But in recent years, they have set aside differences to cooperate in many high-profile successes, including the 2003 capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., and the 2010 arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second in command to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Experts also say Pakistan cooperates in the drone campaign by providing intelligence to help establish targets, though Pakistani intelligence officials deny playing any such role.

But the cooperative efforts came to a near-standstill after Davis was arrested Jan. 27 in the eastern city of Lahore on charges of murdering two men he said were trying to rob him.

Davis, an American citizen, was freed March 16 after the U.S. government reached an agreement with the victims' families to pay $2.3 million in compensation. ISI officials say they learned of Davis' affiliation with the CIA after his arrest, a revelation that deeply embarrassed and angered them.

"We are saying, if you want to work with us, then work with us and don't work behind our backs," said the senior Pakistani intelligence official. "If there are people working behind our backs, then we need visibility into that."

To resurrect cooperation between the intelligence agencies, both sides must rebuild trust.

"It's a question of feeling betrayed by the CIA and the American military command," said Javed Hussain, a security analyst and former Pakistani special forces commander. "If it continues like this … the lack of cooperation between the two intelligence agencies and two military commands could spell disaster for the war against insurgents in Afghanistan and in Pakistan."

The row between the CIA and ISI reflects the continuing erosion of ties between the U.S. and Pakistan, a relationship seen by both sides as vital but also troubled by mutual suspicion and increasingly divergent interests.

Pakistan has repeatedly ignored pleas from the U.S. to launch a military operation on Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who use North Waziristan as a base from which to carry out attacks against U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

Officials in Islamabad, meanwhile, believe the U.S. favors its nuclear archrival to the east, India, and is increasingly concerned that Washington's strategy in Afghanistan will fail and ultimately destabilize Pakistan.

Pakistan also harbors deep suspicions about Davis' activities while he was based here, with many believing that he was involved in spying on the country's nuclear arsenal facilities.

"Everyone here believes that the ultimate objective of the U.S. is to neutralize Pakistan's nuclear capability," Hussain said. "They don't want an Islamic state to have the bomb, least of all, Iran and Pakistan, two unstable regimes."

One of the most troubling elements in Pakistan's list of demands is the request for new limits on drone strikes. The drone campaign, which the CIA also will not publicly acknowledge, is seen by the U.S. as one of its most effective weapons against Al Qaeda militants and their allies in Pakistan's volatile tribal belt.

Pakistani military leaders have acknowledged the drone program's effectiveness; last month, a general in charge of troops in North Waziristan said the majority of people killed in drone strikes were militants rather than civilians.

Still, the March 17 strike in North Waziristan, coming just a day after Davis' release, drew a rare condemnation from Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who said civilians were "carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard for human life."

"It was not at all a good strike," the Pakistani intelligence official said. "So we've been asking to cut down on [the drone campaign], reduce it."

The New York Times reported that Pakistan is also seeking a 25% to 40% reduction in the contingent of U.S. special operations forces in the country. Most of those troops are involved in training members of Pakistan's Frontier Corps paramilitary force, which provides security in the tribal areas and other parts of the northwest.

The Times also reported that 335 CIA officers, contractors and special operations troops were being asked to leave Pakistan, a number that the Pakistani intelligence official said he could not confirm.

The Pakistani official agreed with American officials that, despite the rift between the two countries' intelligence agencies, they would have to find a way to work together "because the stakes are too high."

"There's no question on cooperation. It was there before and will continue to be there as long as there's trust and respect," he said. But having people operating behind your backs is not trust and respect."

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.

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