LONDON (Reuters) - The leaders of Pakistan and Britain will try to repair strained relations this week after openly disagreeing over Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Islamist militants and the direction of the war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has gone ahead with a five-day visit to Britain despite pressure from some Pakistani politicians to cancel the visit in protest at Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment last week that Islamabad must not “promote the export of terror.”
The comment, made during Cameron’s visit to India, infuriated many Pakistanis. Pakistan’s spy chief cancelled a trip to Britain and Islamabad summoned Britain’s ambassador.
Zardari has been criticised in Britain and at home for visiting Europe when floods in Pakistan have killed more than 1,400 people.
“There’s a huge environmental catastrophe taking place (in Pakistan) and for the president to be swanning around Paris and London I think is hardly right under these circumstances,” Khalid Mahmood, a member of Britain’s parliament, told Reuters.
Mahmood, of the opposition Labour Party, said he and at least one other British legislator of Pakistani descent planned to boycott a meeting with Zardari on Thursday in protest.
Zardari risked widening the rift with Cameron on Tuesday by saying the U.S.-led coalition was losing the war against the Afghan Taliban. “That is, above all, because we have lost the battle for hearts and minds,” he told French newspaper Le Monde.
Cameron contradicted Zardari, telling a BBC interviewer: “I don’t accept that we are losing the battle of hearts and minds.”
Britain has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the second biggest foreign contingent after the United States, and is a major aid donor to Pakistan.
Zardari said he hoped his meeting with Cameron would help dispel a “serious crisis.”
Defence expert Brian Cloughley said it was not surprising Pakistani army officers were disturbed by Cameron’s criticism of Pakistan which coincided with British firms clinching a $1.1 billion deal to supply Hawk trainer jets to India.
“There had been a feeling in the Pakistan army that Britain was a valuable ally in the face of Pakistan’s massive internal problems and in support of its anti-insurgent operations in the west of the country. Unfortunately this sentiment has been most severely damaged,” he said.
Mahmood said the Pakistani spy chief’s decision to stay away meant Britain would “now miss out on some very, very crucial information that we need to tackle terrorism in this country.”
Cameron has defended his remarks but invited Zardari to a private dinner at his Chequers country residence on Thursday in addition to previously scheduled talks on Friday, hinting at a desire to repair the rift.
Cameron, who took power in May at the helm of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, says he wants British combat troops home from Afghanistan within five years.
British officials know Pakistan’s help is crucial to Western efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest since the hardline Islamists were overthrown in 2001, despite a sharp increase in U.S.-led forces.
Classified U.S. military reports published on the WikiLeaks website last month detailed concerns that Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency had aided the Taliban.
Zardari will speak at a rally of his Pakistan People’s Party in Birmingham on Saturday to promote the political career of his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, an Oxford University graduate.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and his son are co-chairmen of the ruling PPP.
Additional reporting by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton