Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Washington is to grant Pakistan preferential treatment in military-to-military relations, the latest step in a remarkable process of rehabilitation for a government which less than three years ago was allied to the Taliban.
Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the decision to grant "major non-NATO ally" status to Islamabad after meeting Thursday with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.
Powell was in the Pakistani capital for talks with senior officials that dealt with the continuing hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in border areas with Afghanistan, the recently exposed nuclear black market network run by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, and a resumption of dialogue with neighboring rival, India.
Countries with "major non-NATO ally" status, including such close allies as Australia, Israel and Japan, benefit from defense cooperation and loan guarantees to pay for arms deals.
There was no immediate response to the announcement from India, which does not enjoy "major non-NATO ally" status, but it is likely to come as a severe blow. The Times of India reported on its website that Delhi's external affairs ministry was "reeling."
Much of the bad blood between the nuclear-armed neighbors relates to Kashmir, a hotly disputed territory claimed by both, and presently divided between them (with China also controlling a small portion).
Since India's independence and the founding of Pakistan half a century ago, the two have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir.
Predominantly Hindu India accuses Islamic Pakistan of supporting terrorists fighting to end Indian rule in Kashmir, a Muslim majority Himalayan territory.
Until al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Islamabad was allied to the fundamentalist Taliban militia that ruled most of Afghanistan and harbored Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
Following the attacks, Gen. Pervez Musharraf officially ended ties with the Taliban and sided with the U.S. in the war against terror, which began with a campaign to overthrow the Afghan militia.
The U.S. says Pakistan has played a critical role in the continuing campaign to flush out al Qaeda and Taliban diehards, while allowing the U.S. to use its bases and facilities.
On Thursday, Musharraf announced that Pakistani forces believed they had surrounded a "high-value" target in a remote border area. Senior al Qaeda figures still unaccounted for include bin Laden himself and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
India has watched Pakistan's reinstatement as a U.S. ally with some resentment, and questions Musharraf's sincerity in fighting terrorism.
Numerous security analysts in India and in the West say Pakistan's military, and especially the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) division, retains ties with radical groups, including those operating in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Adding to doubts shared by some about Pakistan's reliability, was the revelation earlier this year that the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been selling nuclear secrets to such countries as Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Khan confessed and exonerated top political and military figures, in return for a pardon from Musharraf.
The U.S. publicly accepted Pakistan's assertion that it was a rogue operation, and said it was cooperating with Islamabad to ensure that the network was rooted out and could cause no further damage.
Following his visit to Pakistan, Powell said Musharraf had given him new information about Khan's proliferation activities.
Speaking to reporters as he flew to Kuwait, Powell said their discussion dealt in part with the issue of whether or not "former members of the government knew about what was going on."
But Powell declined to elaborate, saying he wanted to discuss new information he had heard with colleagues back in the U.S. before commenting further.
"No responsible government of Pakistan should have tolerated such thing and I hope they did not," he said. "I hope it was something that he [Khan] was doing on his own. But we got to get all the facts."
Powell denied that granting of "major non-NATO ally" status to Pakistan was linked to cooperation on the proliferation issue, saying the administration had been working on the military status question for "months and months."
"It's not a reward for A.Q. Khan. It's part of a continuing relationship, and we have been doing things to demonstrate to the Pakistanis that we are good, solid, long-term partners," he said, adding that that was "the same relationship we want to have with India."
A transcript of Powell's comments en route to Kuwait was provided by the State Department.
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