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A U.S., Pakistan Reset Brings Counterterrorism Successes

General Raheel Sharif (R) with US defense secretary Chuck Hagel.
General Raheel Sharif (R) with US defense secretary Chuck Hagel.

The recent killing of senior Al-Qaeda figures and a detainee transfer indicate renewed cooperation between Washington and Islamabad following years of mutual suspicion and mistrust.

Considered one of the most high-profile killings of an Al-Qaeda leader in years, the Pakistani military says it killed Adnan El Shukrijumah in an operation in the country’s northwestern South Waziristan tribal district on December 6.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Shukrijumah was a naturalized U.S. citizen. The U.S. authorities wanted him for his alleged role in plotting bomb attacks against several Western targets.

On December 7, an alleged U.S. drone strike reportedly killed Umar Farooq, commonly known as Ustad Farooq, in the neighboring North Waziristan tribal district. He was considered one of the most senior Al-Qaeda ideologues in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That same day, U.S. forces in Afghanistan handed over three militants, including a senior Pakistani Taliban commander, to Pakistan. "We transferred custody of three Pakistanis held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan to Pakistan," a December 7 statement by the U.S. forces’ headquarters in Kabul said.

Latif Mehsud, one among the three repatriated militants, was a close confidante of slain Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud. He was arrested in October last year and transferred to the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, north of Kabul.

Since its formation in 2007, the TTP has claimed hundreds of attacks inside Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

Earlier in November, chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to have been hiding across the border in Afghanistan, reportedly escaped a drone strike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Despite the two countries partnering in the 13-year war against terrorism, relations between Pakistan and the United States have been tumultuous, experiencing a near breakdown after the May 2011 killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the northwestern Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad.

Bin Laden's killing was followed by the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border NATO incursion in November the same year. The incident prompted Pakistan to block NATO supplies for more than six months.

For years, U.S. media and policymakers accused Islamabad of supporting the Afghan Taliban and other jihadist groups accused of attacking Afghanistan and India. In September 2011, top U.S. military officer Admiral Mike Mullen accused Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of deploying the Taliban's powerful military wing, the Haqqani network, as its "veritable arm" for fomenting violence inside Afghanistan.

While Pakistan refuted such allegations, it failed to act against the Haqqani network believed to be operating from its North Waziristan base near Afghanistan's border.

But a series of security and diplomatic developments over the past few months has visibly improved the acrimonious bilateral relationship.

As a mark of improving ties, U.S. Congress extended the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) for another year in early December.

The mutual bickering appeared to ebb after General Raheel Sharif assumed the office of Pakistan's army chief late last year. Washington praised him for launching a massive operation in North Waziristan in June. Sharif has repeatedly vowed to target militants of all "hues and colors."

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia associate with the Wilson Center think tank in Washington D.C., says relations between the two countries have been on an upward trajectory ever since the United States apologized for the killing of Pakistani soldiers in the summer of 2012.

Kugelman says, however, that suspicion still haunts the relationship. "The U.S. will be very naive if it thought that Pakistan has changed its earlier policy. I don’t see any evidence that the policy has changed despite the repeated claims of General Sharif," he told the RFE/RL Gandhara website.

In Pakistan, the developments are viewed with more optimism. In Islamabad, Talat Masood, a former general turned analyst, says he believes the operation in North Waziristan boosted U.S. confidence in Pakistan.

Masood, however, warns that Pakistani generals should not pin hopes on future assistance from the United States because the country is gradually "losing interest in the region with its withdrawal [from neighboring Afghanistan]."

U.S. Congress added several new conditions to disbursing the annual CSF assistance to Pakistan. One condition requires the U.S. secretary of state to not authorize the release of $300 million without assuring Congress that Pakistan has taken steps to fight all militants.

Kugelman says Washington still does not see Islamabad breaking with the past or dramatically changing its policies toward militants. He says the operation in North Waziristan is a small victory for the United States because it was urging Pakistan to do so for years.

"When push comes to shove, I think, privately, the U.S. government does not think that Pakistan has ended its [policy of nurturing militants as] strategic assets," he said.