ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to build bridges with the next generation of Pakistan’s military leaders on Friday and end a “trust deficit” he said has hampered cooperation against Islamist militancy.
Speaking at Pakistan’s most prestigious military academy, the National Defence University, Gates said distrust between the allies had been compounded by an organised propaganda campaign orchestrated by their common enemy.
Gates said he had been in government when the United States made a “grave mistake” by abandoning Afghanistan and cutting defense ties with Pakistan after U.S.- and Pakistani-backed guerrillas drove Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. “That is largely the reason for a very real, and very understandable, trust deficit — one that has made it more difficult for us to work together to confront the common threat of extremism,” he said.
Gates arrived on Thursday in Pakistan, urging it to root out Afghan Taliban factions based in its northwestern border enclaves from where they have been orchestrating an intensified insurgency in Afghanistan.
But Gates has been careful not to repeat the usual U.S. call for Pakistan to “do more”, a demand that angers Pakistan which has lost about 2,000 soldiers fighting militants.
Islamabad has mounted big offensives against Pakistani Taliban factions attacking the state, but has resisted U.S. pressure to go after Afghan Taliban who do not strike in Pakistan but cross the border to fight U.S. troops.
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as a tool to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and as a potential ally when U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, again leave that country in chaos.
Gates commended the Pakistani military’s success since early last year and also called for it to pressure Afghan factions. “Only by pressuring these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge,” he said.
But Gates said it was up to Pakistan to decide when to act. “The Pakistani leadership will make its own decisions about what the best timing for their military operations is,” he told reporters earlier on Friday.
The military ruled out on Thursday a new offensive any time soon, saying it had to consolidate gains. But analysts say it could conduct limited strikes against specific targets in Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds such as North Waziristan.
Pakistani forces backed by helicopters attacked militants in North Waziristan as Gates was addressing the officers.
Residents said authorities had imposed a curfew as security forces attacked a hideout on the outskirts of the main town in North Waziristan. Two militants had been killed, officials said.
With the United States pouring 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, Pakistan is worried about a spill-over of fighting.
Referring to those fears, Gates said: “It is important to remember that the Pakistani Taliban operates in collusion with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaeda so it is impossible to separate these groups.”
Many Pakistanis are sceptical of the U.S. war on militancy, believing it is aimed at suppressing Muslims. Many also believe the United States wants to confiscate its nuclear weapons.
Gates referred to such conspiracy theories as “an organised propaganda campaign by the very groups we seek to destroy”. “So let me say, definitively, that the United States does not covet a single inch of Pakistani soil … and we have no desire to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”
After the address reporters were asked to leave while Gates fielded tough questions from the audience.
Reflecting a commonly held belief, some officers blamed Pakistan’s security woes, which include regular Taliban bomb attacks, on U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
“Hey, we’re really in this mess because of you,” Morrell said, describing one officer’s concerns. Gates took exception, saying al Qaeda sought to destabilise the region and Pakistan could not hope to be immune. “This is all part of his effort to dispel myths, debunk conspiracy theories … in the hopes of trying to get through some of the nonsense,” Morrell said.
Pakistan is also suspicious of closer ties between the United States and India and wants to exclude India from plans to stabilise Afghanistan. Gates said the United States wanted a broader strategic dialogue with Pakistan on issues including its relationship with India.
In his address, Gates did not mention controversial U.S. drone strikes on militants in Pakistan but on Thursday said Washington was considering supplying surveillance drones to Pakistan.