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Chinese access to chopper in Pak: Is US nervous?

August 17, 2011 09:40 IST

United States Defence Secretary and former Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta's body language and nervous laughter clearly indicated that Washington strongly believes that Pakistan gave China access to the top secret stealth chopper that crashed in Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad during the covert American mission by US Navy SEALS that killed the Al Qaeda chief.

Panetta, at a joint appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the National Defence University in Washington, DC to discuss Security and Foreign Policy challenges the US faces, also adamantly defended the use of drones in Pakistan to seek out and kill Al Qaeda leaders, and also implied that the conspiracy to launch the 9/11 terrorist attack was hatched in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Asked by Frank Sesno, former CNN anchor who moderated the conversation, if the story that Pakistan handed over parts of the helicopter that went down in bin Laden's compound -- or gave access -- to the Chinesse before returning it to the US was true, Panetta first started shifting uneasily in his seat and then started laughing and said, "this is a very complicated relationship with Pakistan."

When Sesno pressed him if this was a yes and if his response indicated that Pakistan had indeed given the Chinese access to this chopper, Panetta continuing to laugh nervously, said, "I have got to protect my old hat (meaning as erstwhile head of the CIA)."

Then saying he could not acknowledge if this was true or not, he said, "I can't comment because it does relate to classified intelligence."

But then he quickly changed the subject and went on to blast Pakistan for its relationships with the Haqqani network, the Lakshar-e-Tayiba -- responsible for the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

However, he conceded that Washington has no alternative but to work with Pakistan because it is engaged in a war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region.

"We are concerned with these relationships of Pakistan, which makes it complicated. They have relationships with the Haqqani network and the Haqqani tribe that are going across the border attacking our forces and it is pretty clear that there is a relationship here," he said, and added, "This relationship with the LeT, this is a group that goes into India and threatens attacks there -- has conducted attacks there. And in addition to that, they (Pakistan) don't provide visas (to US military trainers, which resulted in the US suspending nearly $800 million in security assistance to Pakistan)."

Thus, Panetta said, "In the relationship, there are bumps and grinds. We try to work it through and yet there is no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan. Why? Because we are fighting a war there, because we are fighting Al Qaeda there and they do give us some cooperation in that effort. Because they do represent an importance force in that region, because they do happen to be a nuclear power -- that they have nuclear weapons and we have to be concerned about what happens with those nuclear weapons."

"So, for all these reasons, we got to maintain a relationship with Pakistan," he reiterated. "It's going to be…it's complicated. It's going to be ups and down."

Panetta said he and Clinton "have spent countless hours going to Pakistan, talking to their leaders," about these contentious issues and US-Pakistan cooperation to alleviate these concerns.

When asked about the drone attacks that are resented by Pakistanis, Clinton jumped into answer, saying, "Let me take you back to a conversation that not many may have heard."

She said, "Shortly after I became Secretary of State, we were quite concerned to see the Pakistani Taliban basically taking advantage of what has been an effort by the government of Pakistan to try and create some kind of peace agreement with the Pakistani Taliban and to, in effect, say to them, 'Look, you stay in SWAT and don't bother us, we won't bother you."

Clinton said, at that point, "I was very blunt -- both publicly and privately -- with my Pakistani interlocutors in saying, 'You can't make deals with terrorists. I mean the very people that you think can either predict or control are at the end of the day neither predictable or controllable.'"

"And I was very pleased when the Pakistanis moved into SWAT and cleared out a lot of what had become a Pakistani Taliban stronghold and they began to take some troops on the border with India, put more resources into the fight against Pakistani Taliban."

Clinton acknowledged that as Panetta had pointed out that the US had concerns over Pakistan's links with the Haqqani network and the LeT, and these were constantly under discussion. "And yet, in a fairly relatively short period of time -- two-and-a-half years --when they have begun to re-orient themselves militarily against what in our view is an internal threat to them. We were saying this because we think it will undermine the control that the Pakistani government is able to exercise."

She asserted, "We have conversations like this all the time and I do think there are certain attitudes or beliefs that the Pakistanis have, which are rooted in their own experience, just like we have our own set of such convictions, bit I also think that there is a debate going on inside of Pakistan about the best way to deal with what is an increasingly internal threat."

At this point Panetta also jumped in saying, "The reason we are there is we are protecting our national security. I mean, we are defending our country. It was Al Qaeda which attacked this country on 9/11."

He said, "The leadership of Al Qaeda was there and so we are going after those who continue to plan to attack this country -- the terrorists. And, the operations we conducted there is very effective -- at undermining Al Qaeda and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks."

"But let me make this point," Panetta argued, and said, "These terrorists that are there are also a threat to Pakistan's national security as well. They attack Pakistanis. They go into Karachi, they go into Islamabad and conduct attacks there and kill Pakistanis. So, it is in their interests to go after these terrorists as well."

He said, "They just can't pick and choose among terrorists."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC