- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in his push for a coordinated assault against the Taliban in Afghanistan this spring, is enlisting Pakistan’s help and vowing better military coordination along the troubled border between the two countries.

After four days of entreaties to NATO allies in Europe seeking more military and economic development resources for the Afghanistan war, Mr. Gates tacked 30 hours of travel onto his trip to meet in Islamabad with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The lengthy detour underscored how critical this time is in the Afghan conflict, which has dragged on for five years, and has seen escalating violence and a persistent problem with Taliban militants crossing over the porous border from Pakistan.

“I think there’s a mutual interest in improving our effectiveness and improving our coordination, and the understanding that we have a real opportunity this spring,” Mr. Gates said after his hourlong meeting with Gen. Musharraf.

Pakistan, a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has denied the charges that the Taliban are staging attacks from inside Pakistan and says it has deployed about 80,000 troops along its rugged border with Afghanistan to track down militants.

In their meeting, Gen. Musharraf told Mr. Gates “the problems of extremism and terrorism were indigenous to Afghanistan” and had spilled over into Pakistan, according to a Pakistani government statement. The statement quoted him as saying it was imperative to close camps for Afghan refugees in Pakistan that provided a “safe haven” for militants.

It was Mr. Gates’ first trip to Pakistan since taking over as defense secretary in December.

Mr. Gates said the meeting, held at one of Gen. Musharraf’s homes, was not aimed at securing assurances of action from the Pakistanis, who have been criticized for failing to adequately secure their border. Gen. Musharraf, he added, has been meeting with his military commanders to see how they can improve their operations along the border.

Mr. Gates also said that U.S. forces who have been firing artillery rounds over the border into Pakistan to target the Taliban have been coordinating with the Pakistanis. He said he did not know if Gen. Musharraf approved the cross-border fire, but doubted that he would do so personally.

The commander of the U.S. forces in the region, Army Col. John W. Nicholson, told the Associated Press on Sunday that asserting a right to self-defense, American forces in eastern Afghanistan have launched artillery rounds into Pakistan to strike Taliban fighters who attack remote U.S. outposts.

Meanwhile, the governor of Afghanistan’s Helmand province said at least 700 Taliban fighters have crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan to reinforce guerrillas attacking a key dam, a major source of electricity and irrigation.

“We have got confirmed reports that they are Pakistani, Uzbek and Chechen nationals and have sneaked in,” Gov. Asadullah Wafa told Reuters news agency by telephone.

The Kajaki dam has seen major fighting in recent weeks between the Taliban and NATO forces, mainly British and Dutch.

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