WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has reaffirmed his government's commitment to close security ties with the United States.
"Pakistan has been in the front and center of the global war on terrorism and our key role is fully recognized and known. Our commitment to counter-terrorism is unwavering despite its cost and risks," Aziz told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation Monday.
Visiting Washington at a critical time in U.S.-Pakistani relations, Aziz avoided overt criticism of recent U.S. military strikes inside his country. Instead, he emphasized the long history of cooperation between the two countries.
Aziz said that whenever U.S.-Pakistan relations have "come under a shadow, our interests have suffered." During his Washington visit, he met with President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials.
At least 13 people were killed in a Pakistani village near the Afghan border on Jan. 13 when U.S. Predator drones conducted an air strike aimed at al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In the days after the air strike, Pakistani officials protested the incursion into their territory, claiming that they had not received prior notice of the attack. Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets after the air strike, shouting for jihad against America and burning effigies of President Bush.
The protests highlighted the delicate balance required of Prime Minister Aziz and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, leaders of a Muslim nation that depends on U.S. aid for its economic growth.
Before the Sept. 11 mega-terrorist attacks, Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan, while the mujahedeen resistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s created close ties between these groups and the Pakistani military.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Pakistan has received billions of dollars in aid packages, forgiven loans and lifted sanctions in return for its crucial geo-political support of the war on terror. That support has helped lead Pakistan out of economic recession and high levels of poverty to an almost 8.4 percent growth in its economy last year. "The Pakistan of today," Aziz claimed, "is not the Pakistan of yesterday."
However, many have questioned if the Bush administration is receiving its money's worth since U.S. forces based in Afghanistan are not allowed to pursue terror suspects across the border and into Pakistan.
Last week, U.S. media speculated that the American military's failure to notify the Pakistanis of the air strike indicated a lack of confidence in the latter's ability to maintain the integrity of sensitive intelligence.
Prime Minister Aziz side-stepped such questions in his Heritage appearance.
When asked if the Bush administration would request that Pakistan to step up its efforts in catch terrorists, he said, "Pakistan's fight against terrorism is based on conviction and the strong belief that terrorism is bad for everyone, wherever you are."
Aziz cited the deployment of 80,000 Pakistani troops in the porous Afghan-Pakistan border region as proof of his country's commitment, and said that they were working towards a 24 hour, seven day a week response capability against terrorists.
"We are jointly committed," said Aziz, "to a secure and stable world based on freedom, justice and equity."
Aziz repeatedly stated that Pakistan had borne the brunt of consequences stemming from the American-funded, anti-Soviet jihad.
"In the eighties," Aziz said, Pakistan and the United States "cooperated to resist the Soviet advance in Afghanistan; as a result, we helped the consolidation of freedom movements in Eastern Europe and hastened the end of the Cold War, bringing about the momentous transformation of our time. In the nineties, our relations came under stress and Afghanistan suffered neglect. The consequences were disastrous. Afghanistan became a haven for international terrorists."
Aziz noted the influx of crime, drugs and refugees that migrated into Pakistan because of the Afghan war -- a challenge that, he said, Pakistan had dealt with all on its own. He said the United States had periodically ignored the region.
Aziz rejected the notion that the war on terror is the result of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. "We believe," he said, "that terrorism in part stems from denial of justice, from deprivation and from a deep sense of humiliation. We must address the problem of terrorism holistically."
Aziz said Islam was a religion of "peace, tolerance, compassion and forbearance." He advocated a doctrine of enlightened understanding and a joint effort to look at the root causes of terrorism.
"Pakistan," he said, "has been in the front and center of the global war on terrorism and our key role is fully recognized and known. Our commitment to counter-terrorism is unwavering despite its cost and risks."