WASHINGTON – In what could mark a turning point in U.S.-Pakistani relations, Pakistani forces have arrested a handful of Al Qaeda suspects at the CIA's request and allowed the U.S. access to the detainees, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
Pakistan has also stopped demanding the CIA suspend the covert drone strikes that have damaged Al Qaeda's militant ranks in Pakistan's tribal areas, officials on both sides say -- though the Pakistanis say they have simply put this on the back burner for now. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters.
Only one of the Al Qaeda figures who was arrested is considered senior, but U.S. and Pakistani officials called the combined moves a trend in the right direction.
"They are doing things to cooperate and be helpful," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Clapper would not comment on the details shared by other U.S. and two Pakistani officials, but confirmed there has been some progress restoring the joint intelligence cooperation that used to be routine, prior to the covert U.S. raid that killed Usama bin Laden inside Pakistan in May. The raid inflamed anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and embarrassed its intelligence services, who were already angry over an incident in January, when a CIA security contractor shot dead two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him.
For a time, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency refused to carry out any joint operations with American intelligence officers, nor would they allow the Americans access to question militant detainees. Visas as well were hard to come by for U.S. officials of any stripe. The breakdown in relations took on a tit-for-tat quality, with Pakistan expelling most of the U.S. military trainers in the country, and the U.S. cutting off several hundred million dollars in military aid.
There are still bumps, including over recent high-level U.S. criticism of Pakistan's ties to militant groups.
Pakistan considered halting some of the increased cooperation after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen accused Pakistan's spy shop of complicity with the militant Haqqani network's attack on the U.S. embassy in neighboring Afghanistan. Mullen levied that charge, the most serious U.S. allegation against Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks, within a few days of leaving his post last month.
President Barack Obama was more circumspect on Thursday, saying "there is no doubt that there is some connection that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have with certain individuals that we find troubling."
Obama said he does not want to yank humanitarian aid or take other punitive measures just to make a point, but some in Congress are demanding a major retrenchment in U.S. engagement with what many see as a reluctant and inconsistent anti-terrorism partner.
More fallout from that clash arose Thursday, when a Pakistani government commission concluded a Pakistani doctor should be prosecuted for treason, for running a vaccination program to help the CIA locate bin Laden.
Dr. Shakil Afridi Afridi has been in the custody of Pakistan's ISI since the bin Laden raid.
Yet against the backdrop of public claim and counterclaim, intelligence officials on both sides say they have labored to restore communication.
Clapper and three top CIA officials have held what he described as "frank and candid meetings," with Pakistan's intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha both in the U.S. and Islamabad since the bin Laden raid.
The improved cooperation is a byproduct of mutual need, rather than shared trust at this point, officials concede. Pakistan does not want to risk losing U.S. diplomatic and financial support, and the U.S. needs Pakistani cooperation to continue counterterrorist operations against Al Qaeda in one of its key safe havens. The U.S. military also needs Pakistani consent to use the country's roads to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.