Exclusive: PM Gilani Warns of 'Trust Deficit' Between U.S. and Pakistan

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Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in an exclusive interview with TIME — his first since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden — warned on Wednesday that continuing to work with the U.S. could imperil his government, unless Washington takes drastic steps to restore trust and win over 180 million Pakistanis. Despite the clamor of criticism in Washington alleging Pakistani duplicity over the fact that the al-Qaeda leader had been hiding out in the sleepy garrison town of Abbottabad, Gilani claimed the role of the aggrieved party in a deteriorating relationship. He complained repeatedly throughout the 45-minute breakfast interview about the widening "trust deficit" between the two allies.

Alternating between Urdu and English, the Prime Minister said cooperation between the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), had broken down and that Washington and Islamabad differed on how to fight terrorism and forge an exit strategy in Afghanistan. He did, however, publicly offer for the first time to support U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan, provided that Pakistan is in on the decisionmaking.

Gilani warned that his government was accountable to an electorate that is increasingly hostile to the U.S. "I am not an army dictator; I'm a public figure," the Prime Minister told TIME, speaking at his palatial hilltop residence in Islamabad. "If public opinion is against you [referring to his U.S. allies], then I cannot resist it to stand with you. I have to go with public opinion." While the bin Laden debacle has raised calls in Washington to pressure Pakistan for more cooperation, in Islamabad it has raised further hostility toward the U.S.

Speaking of the Abbottabad raid, Gilani said, "Naturally, we wondered why [the U.S.] went unilaterally. If we're fighting a war together, we have to work together. Even if there was credible and actionable information, then we should have done it jointly." Addressing Parliament on Monday, Gilani warned against further such U.S. strikes on Pakistan's soil.

The Prime Minister said he was first alerted to the raid by a 2 a.m. call from Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Gilani then called his Foreign Secretary and asked him to demand an explanation from U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter. "I have not met or spoken to [U.S. officials] since," he complained. "Whatever information we are receiving is from the media. Today we have said that we want them to talk to us directly."

While Pakistani opposition politicians have pilloried as an intelligence fiasco the revelation that bin Laden had lived undetected in Abbottabad, the Prime Minister testily pushed back against suggestions that his government had caved to the military by allowing it to hold an internal inquiry into the affair, rather than enforce civilian oversight. "We are all on the same page," Gilani said with an air of finality.

The deepening rift between Washington and Islamabad casts a shadow over Afghanistan, where their cooperation is vital to enable a U.S. exit strategy. Gilani emphasized his strengthening links with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the many bonds that unite the two peoples. But that doesn't necessarily translate into support for the U.S. strategy there.

"In our discussions with Karzai, we came to an agreement that terrorists are our common enemy. We both have suffered; we both have made sacrifices. So we have decided to unite to fight against them," Gilani said. To prove this recent intimacy, he showed off a beautifully carved, single-slab lapis lazuli coffee-table top, encased in velvet. "It was a gift from Karzai," he said. "It arrived a week ago."

Despite his rapprochement with Karzai, Gilani acknowledged his abiding "difference of opinion" with Washington on how best to fight militancy. "From Day One, my policy has been the three Ds: dialogue, development and deterrence," Gilani said. "The first time I shared my strategy with President Bush, it sounded Greek to him. Today the whole world is toeing the same line." In that vein, he criticized the U.S. surge in Afghanistan: "Military solutions cannot be permanent solutions. There has to be a political solution, some kind of exit strategy."

Gilani favors a political solution to the conflict next door, led by the Afghans. "It should be owned by them and be on their own initiative," the Prime Minister said. He saw Pakistan's role as that of a "facilitator." U.S. officials have routinely criticized Pakistan for allowing Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters to operate from its soil.

As its ties with Washington fray, Pakistan is strengthening its regional relations. Gilani recently visited India; next week, he will travel to China. But the Prime Minister rejects any suggestion that Pakistan will compensate for any cooling of U.S. support by drawing closer to China. "We already have a stronger relationship with China," he said. "It's time-tested." Yet he doesn't believe Washington is really going to cut aid. If it does, he said, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Gilani does fear that a deteriorating relationship with Washington could hurt Pakistan's fight against domestic militancy. "When there's a trust deficit," he said, "there will be problems in intelligence sharing." Asked about the reason for this trust deficit, Gilani replied tersely, "It's not from our side. Ask them."

The most glaring, and worrying, example of the breakdown for Gilani is in the working relationship between the CIA and the ISI. "Traditionally, the ISI worked with the CIA," he said. Now "what we're seeing is that there's no level of trust." Relations have deteriorated sharply since last November, when the local CIA station chief was outed, allegedly by the ISI — a charge the agency denies. They hit a low point amid the standoff over Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistani men in a January incident and then claimed diplomatic immunity. Further strain has been caused by the CIA's covert drone strikes against suspected militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Gilani said the drone war weakens his efforts to rally public support for the fight against extremism. "No one can win a war without the support of the public," he said. "I say that this is my war, but when drones strike, the people ask, 'Whose war is this, then?' " Still, Gilani said — for the first time, publicly — that he was open to renegotiating the terms of the CIA's program.

"A drone strategy can be worked out," Gilani said. "If drone strikes are effective, then we should evolve a common strategy to win over public opinion. Our position is that the technology should be transferred to us."

Still, he added, he would countenance a policy in which the CIA would continue to operate the drones "where they are used under our supervision." That statement marks a departure from Pakistan's frequent public denunciations of drone strikes as intolerable violations of sovereignty.

Despite his constant references to the trust deficit, Gilani indicated that he hoped to see a restoration of closer ties with Washington but put the onus on Washington to gain the support of Pakistani citizens. "They should do something for the public which will persuade them that the U.S. is supportive of Pakistan," he said. As an example, he enviously cited the 2008 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. "It's our public that's dying, but the deal is happening there," the Prime Minister said, adopting a wounded tone. "You claim there's a strategic partnership? That we're best friends?" Casting his eyes up at his chandeliered ceiling, Gilani reached for a verse. "When we passed each other, she didn't deign to even say hello," he intoned, quoting the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. "How, then, can I believe that our parting caused her any tears?"