ISLAMABAD (Jan. 21, 2010) – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here in the Pakistani capital today to personally deliver assurances of the United States’ long-term commitment to Pakistan, with what he expects to be frank, open talks about violent extremism and other shared security concerns.
Gates, in his first visit here as defense secretary, will meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
He also will meet with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Intelligence Chief Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha.
The goal, he wrote in an editorial in today’s English-language Pakistani newspaper, The News, is to deliver the message that the United States is committed to a stable, long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan and seeks a long-term relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect.
Gates told reporters traveling with him his talks with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders will focus heavily on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, its long-term implications and Pakistan’s key role in its success.
“The Pakistanis have accomplished a great deal in the past year or so,” he said. He noted successful military operations in the west that “have caused al-Qaida and some of the other terrorists we have been concerned about flee their safe havens,” contributing to the effort in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has positioned about 15 percent of its military along the western border, and suffered tremendous casualties in its stand against extremist elements.
“The tremendous sacrifice of so many Pakistani troops – 2,000 in the last three years – speaks to both their courage and their commitment to protect their fellow citizens,” Gates wrote. “It also speaks to the magnitude of the security challenges this country faces, and the need for our two countries to muster the resolve to eliminate lawless regions and bring this conflict to an end.”
Gates noted U.S. efforts to increase the Pakistani military’s capabilities, primarily through training and equipment, and said he will reiterate the offer for more assistance, if wanted.
“It’s the Pakistanis that have their foot on the accelerator, not us,” he said. “So we have to do this in a way that is comfortable for them, and at a pace that they can accommodate and is tolerable for them.”
Gates said he’s comfortable with having the Pakistanis set the pace according to their political situation.
He recognized in his editorial concern that the increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan will lead to more attacks in Pakistan, and said it’s important to remember that terrorists in both countries operate as part of a broader, coordinated organization.
“Only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good – to destroy those who promote the use of terror here and abroad,” he wrote.
Gates said he hopes to move beyond what he acknowledged as a “trust deficit” between the two countries.
“As I meet with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders during my visit, I will emphasize that the United States wishes to relinquish the grievances of the past – grievances held by both sides – and instead focus on the promise of the future,” he wrote in his editorial.
Gates is particularly looking forward to addressing a Pakistani military audience here, talking directly to those in uniform and taking what Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell acknowledged is expected to be tough questioning.
“It is useful to open a dialog,” Gates told reporters, “particularly with people with whom we have not had a dialog.”
The goal, Morrell explained, is to help overcome a lost generation of military-to-military contacts after the United States stopped them because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
Kayani received military education at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., but most of the Pakistani forces he leads have had little or no personal interaction with U.S. forces, Morrell said. “The up-and-coming leaders of the Pakistani military are not familiar with us, and we are not familiar with them,” he said. “We need to work extra hard to try to establish the level of trust that is required for us to have a successful military-to-military relationship.”
Arriving here after a visit to India, Gates is expected to address tensions between India and Pakistan, and to emphasize that violent extremism is the biggest threat the two countries face – not each other.
During a press conference yesterday in New Delhi, he expressed concern that a broad syndicate of military groups under the al-Qaida umbrella seeks to stoke distrust between the two countries, and possibly even to trigger conflict.
While in Islamabad, Gates also plans to visit the Office of the Defense Representative at the U.S. Embassy, and to address the entire embassy staff to emphasize the importance of interagency cooperation.
His visit here will build on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful three-day visit here in October.
“She did some things on that trip that clearly made a difference with the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people,” Morrell told reporters.
“The kind of frank, open, candid discussions she had, both in her meetings and her public engagements, had an impact,” he said. “And that is precisely the way Secretary Gates likes to communicate. I think he relishes the opportunity to go there, as she did, and speak in a very honest and forthright way with both the Pakistani civilian and military leadership, as well as the Pakistani people through journalists.”