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Gates Says Pakistan Faces 'Existential Threat' From Militants

Defense Secretary Gates at the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 23

Defense Secretary Gates at the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 23

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Islamist safe havens in western Pakistan are threatening the existence of Pakistan's civilian government through increased attacks, including last weekend's Marriott hotel bombing, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said.

"The nature of the threat that they face, beginning with the assassination of the current president's wife and now most recently the attack on the Marriott hotel, makes very clear to the Pakistani government that they face an existential threat in the western part of their country," Gates told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

The remote mountainous region believed to be a safe harbor for Al-Qaeda and other groups also poses the greatest threat of terrorism against the United States, Gates said in hearing testimony that underscored the dangers posed by the tribal lands along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

As security deteriorates in that border region, Kabul and Islamabad are said to be discussing an Afghan proposal to set up a joint force to combat militants on both sides of the border.

U.S. officials have increasingly looked to Pakistan as a vital part of their strategy against an intensifying insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, which the Americans say is being fueled by militant strongholds in Pakistan.

But thousands of U.S. troops requested by commanders in Afghanistan are unlikely to be available until next spring at the earliest, Gates said. In the meantime, the United States has stepped up its campaign against militants in Pakistan with a series of missile strikes from predator drones and a U.S. commando raid in South Waziristan.

Gates said Islamabad's new civilian government cannot publicly support U.S. military action against militant targets on Pakistani soil and warned that any deterioration in U.S. relations with the nuclear-armed state would hurt U.S. interests.

Time Of Turmoil

"During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially crucial that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government, since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan," the U.S. defense chief said. "The war on terror started in this region. It must end there."

A suicide truck bomb exploded outside Islamabad's Marriott hotel on September 20, killing at least 53 people and gutting the hotel. A previously unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the bombing, which follows the December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The bombing, which has led to some media speculation that Pakistani leaders may have been the targets, came about three weeks after an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

The militant-driven rise in Afghan violence prompted President George W. Bush this month to announce a plan to deploy to Afghanistan a U.S. Marine force of nearly 2,000 troops in November and an army brigade of around 4,000 troops in January.

U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the head of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, later said he needed three more brigades plus support units -- around 15,000 troops -- in addition to the deployments announced by Bush.

But Gates said a new deployment of that scale would be unlikely before next spring or summer due to U.S. troop commitments in Iraq, where about 150,000 U.S. forces remain.

"Without changing deployment patterns, without changing length of tours, we do not have the forces to send three additional brigade combat teams to Afghanistan at this point," Gates told the lawmakers.

"My view is that those forces will become available probably during the spring and summer of 2009," he said.

The United States now has about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 under NATO command.

But the military has been constrained from sending additional forces by the ongoing troop commitment in Iraq, where there are about 150,000 U.S. forces.