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Gates Seeks To Build Trust With Pakistani Military

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today sought to build bridges with the next generation of Pakistan's military leaders and end a "trust deficit" that he said has hampered cooperation against Islamist militancy.

Speaking at Pakistan's most prestigious military academy, the National Defense University, Gates said distrust between the allies had been compounded by an organized 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 Afghan 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 in Pakistan on January 21, urging Pakistan 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" in the fight against militants, a demand that has infuriated 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 in border enclaves 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 if U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, again leave that country in chaos.

Gates commended the Pakistani military's success against militants 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 at the same time, Gates stressed that it was up to Pakistan to decide on the timing of its action.

"The Pakistani leadership will make its own decisions about what the best timing for their military operations is, about when they are ready to do something or whether they are going to do it at all," Gates told reporters earlier today.

Many Pakistanis are deeply skeptical 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.

Gate said rebuilding relationships with the new generation of Pakistani officers, who have had little or no interactions with the U.S. military, could not be done in months.

"Further worsening the situation is an organized propaganda campaign by the very groups we seek to destroy," he said.

"So let me say, definitively, that the United States does not covet a single inch of Pakistani soil; we seek no military bases here; and we have no desire to control Pakistan's nuclear weapons."

Strikes In North Waziristan

As Gatse spoke in Islamabad, Pakistani forces backed by helicopter gunships attacked a militant hideout in a major Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary on the Afghan border, killing two militants, officials said.

"An intense exchange of fire is going on between militants and the security forces," said an intelligence official in the region who declined to be identified.

Residents said authorities had imposed a curfew as security forces attacked the militants on the outskirts of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan. Two militants had been killed, another security official said.

Pakistan's army launched an offensive in neighboring South Waziristan in October against Al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban attacking the state, but has resisted U.S. pressure to expand its campaign to Afghan Taliban factions.

North Waziristan is a stronghold of Afghan Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies.

Despite the U.S. pressure to tackle the factions in North Waziristan and elsewhere, the military on January 21 ruled out any new offensive for up to a year, saying it had to consolidate its gains in South Waziristan.

But analysts say Pakistan may launch surgical strikes against militants in North Waziristan to deflect U.S. pressure.

"There is a possibility that they will keep on carrying out operations on a limited scale," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and an expert on militant affairs, said.