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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday it is negotiating a possible reduction in U.S. intelligence operatives and special operations officers in Pakistan as the two countries try to mend relations badly strained by the arrest and detention of a CIA security contractor for killing two Pakistanis.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the 300-member contingent is helping train the Pakistani military. The U.S. wants to maintain the program and is having conversations with Pakistani authorities about requirements and force levels, he said.
"We want to keep that program alive," Toner told reporters. "We think it's important."
The two strategic allies have haggled for years over how many U.S. intelligence and special operations forces may be posted in Pakistan. U.S. officials often have griped that while Pakistan accepts programs, in principle, that would bring in Green Berets or Navy SEALs to work with equivalent Pakistani forces, the government then holds back on issuing the necessary visas to allow the American advisers into the country.
But the latest discussions are taking place amid decidedly sourer bilateral relations, reflecting the continued mistrust and anger over the Jan. 27 arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Allen Davis for killing two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him. The incident stoked anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and led to one of severest rifts between the two governments, with high-level contacts suspended for weeks.
The U.S. government insisted that Davis, as an embassy employee, was immune from prosecution. He was released in March after the families of the victims agreed to $2.3 million in compensation.
On military cooperation, some of the pressure from the Pakistani side reflects the continued widespread anger from the Davis case and the perception it fueled among Pakistanis of armed American forces able to roam the country at will. The unpopularity of American airborne drone strikes on terror targets in Pakistan also has made cooperation more difficult, while Pakistan's intelligence chief is angry over being named in a civil lawsuit in the United States filed by family members of victims of a November 2008 attack in Mumbai, India.
CIA Director Leon Panetta and Pakistan's intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, met Monday at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., amid a range of disagreements, with Pakistani officials seeking advance notice of CIA drone strikes aimed at militants in its tribal areas, and fewer strikes overall. The U.S. agency is considering Pakistan's request for more information but sees other demands as nonstarters, as American officials believe factions in the Pakistani intelligence agency support Taliban and other militant groups, which are killing U.S. troops just across the border in Afghanistan.
The view from Washington is that the countries need to work together to develop Pakistan's capacity to root out terrorist camps operating within its borders. It's unclear whether Pakistan is truly being uncooperative or gaining leverage by holding out until the U.S. sweetens the deal.
"It's an ongoing process," Toner said. "We continue to talk to them about these type of programs and obviously the troop levels that are appropriate for them."
U.S. and Pakistani officials have cited different numbers for possible force level reductions, and Toner said no decisions have been made. He noted that American officers were in Pakistan at the behest of that country's government, and "our presence there is a function of the amount and type of training and equipping required to meet the Pakistani government's requests and requirements."
And he acknowledged that intergovernmental relations had grown testier.
"We've been through a difficult period," he said. "We're looking to renew the relationship in a way and getting past the difficulty that the Raymond Davis case caused."
Associated Press writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.