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U.S. Defense Secretary Gates Arrives In Pakistan


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an unannounced trip to Pakistan today hoping to deepen ties and persuade the nuclear-armed U.S. ally to root out all militants, including Afghan Taliban factions.

Gates, on his first visit to Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year, told reporters he would also attempt to persuade a skeptical nation that Washington aimed to be an ally "for the long haul."

Islamabad has mounted big offensives against Pakistani Taliban factions that are attacking the state but has resisted U.S. pressure to attack Afghan Taliban in border enclaves who do not attack in Pakistan but cross the border to fight U.S. troops.

Pakistan says it has its hands full with the Pakistani Taliban and cannot open too many fronts at the same time.

But analysts say Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as a tool to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and as potential allies in Afghanistan if U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, leave the country in chaos.

Gates said in a commentary published in a Pakistani newspaper that making a distinction between Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan allies was counterproductive and all factions had to be tackled.

"What I hope to talk about with my interlocutors is this notion and the reality that you can't ignore one part of this cancer and pretend that it won't have some impact closer to home," Gates told reporters traveling with him from India.

Pakistan and the United States have been allies for years but ties have been strained by U.S. calls for Pakistan to do more to stop militants crossing from its lawless ethnic Pashtun border lands to fight in Afghanistan.

Gates, referring to a "trust deficit" between the United States and Pakistan, said in the commentary the United States wanted to relinquish grievances of the past held by both sides.

The United States was committed to a stable, long-term, strategic partnership with a democratic Pakistan, he said.

The United States is sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, and Pakistan is worried that will lead to a spill-over of fighting across the border.

Gates, who is due to meet military and political leaders on his two-day visit, said he would explain the Afghan strategy.

"The main focus of my visit will be to [discuss Afghan strategy]...and to provide reassurances to the Pakistanis that we are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs far into the future," Gates said.

Gates told reporters he would explore a possible Pakistani plan to move against Afghan Taliban in Pakistan's North Waziristan border region later this year.

Pakistan's military spokesman said there would be no new offensives for the next six months to a year as forces were consolidating gains against Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan region.

"We are not in a position to get overstretched," the spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, told reporters.

Gates said he would also raise thorny issues, including manifestations of anti-Americanism that include "problems with our visas and harassment of our people."

U.S. officials said last month that Pakistan was delaying hundreds of visas for U.S. officials and contractors, which could hamper U.S. aid programs and further strain a critical alliance in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States attributed the delay in part to bureaucratic inefficiency, coupled with an "exponential" growth in the number of Americans in Pakistan.

The United States is Pakistan's biggest aid donor and has given about $15 billion, including security assistance, since Pakistan signed up to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Gates said Pakistan should determine the pace of aid flows.

Many Pakistanis are deeply skeptical of the U.S. war on militancy, believing it is aimed at suppressing Muslims.

Another source of friction is strikes by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on suspected militants in northwest Pakistan.

Gates but said avoiding civilian casualties was central to U.S. strategy and the United States was mindful of Pakistan's sovereignty.

Pakistan is also suspicious of closer ties between the United States and India and is keen to exclude India from any role in plans to stabilize Afghanistan. An international conference of Afghanistan is being held in London at the end of the month.

Gates said in India on January 20 that New Delhi may lose its diplomatic restraint with Pakistan in the event of any repeat of a Mumbai-style attack, and militants in the region may use this to provoke the rivals into a war.