- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Trying to mend strained relations with Pakistan and still pursue al Qaeda, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with top Pakistani government and military officials Tuesday to discuss a new strategic agreement governing U.S. military action along the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a senior Pakistani official said.

Defense Department officials confirmed Adm. Mullen’s visit to Islamabad, two weeks after the U.S. military conducted its first ground assault into Pakistan’s tribal region on Sept. 3.

Pakistan protested the U.S. incursion as a violation of the nation’s sovereignty and said the raid caused the deaths of dozens of innocent people, including women and children.

“This is Admiral Mullen’s fifth visit to Pakistan since assuming his post last October,” said Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs chairman. “He has been focused keenly on working more closely with the Pakistani military to improve coordination and effectiveness in operations against extremist safe havens in the border regions.”

A Defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan asked Adm. Mullen last weekend to fly to Islamabad after his visit to Iraq with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Adm. Mullen accepted the offer and met Tuesday with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, “discussing ongoing operations” in the tribal region, Col. Tallman said.

“The discussion with Chairman Mullen will provide a better understanding and plan of action for both nations,” the senior Pakistani official told The Washington Times. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The official indicated that Pakistan considers U.S. air operations with drones acceptable but will require any ground assault to be closely coordinated with Islamabad.

“We have seen two different types of military strategies for the U.S. in the tribal areas,” the official said. “Over the past year, the U.S. has gone after al Qaeda and Taliban extremists with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drone attacks, most of which were coordinated with Pakistani forces. This has not been publicly stated because of the ongoing sensitivity of the issue with the Pakistani public.”

The official contrasted these air operations with the Sept. 3 incursion.

“The second attack, which happened on September 3 with the use of U.S. ground troops and helicopters, was not coordinated with the Pakistani government and produced a severe strain on relations,” he said. “Any military actions within Pakistani territory must be coordinated with the Pakistani government because we will not allow the territorial sovereignty of our nation breached.”

The official added, “We have more than 150,000 Pakistani troops in the tribal areas and if the U.S. is planning on an operation, it needs to coordinate with Pakistan.”

U.S. military commanders fear such coordination would allow Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan’s intelligence establishment to tip off potential targets.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Pakistani Army Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said he was ordered to shoot down any U.S. troops or unauthorized helicopters crossing into Pakistani territory without his government’s knowledge. Pakistani officials later backed away from such harsh statements and said Gen. Abbas’ statements were taken out of context.

New Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari complained about the U.S. incursions Tuesday in a meeting in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Mr. Zardari said Mr. Brown agreed with him that such raids “didn’t help” Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

Mr. Gates, who headed to Afghanistan Tuesday after leaving Baghdad, is expected to meet with President Hamid Karzai to discuss growing concern that the Taliban is growing stronger in Afghanistan in part because of sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

While Adm. Mullen was meeting with Pakistani leaders, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, told reporters that he would need thousands more U.S. troops on top of planned reinforcements of up to 15,000 soldiers expected to arrive in Afghanistan in the near future.

Adm. Mullen told Congress last week that the only way to win the war in Afghanistan was to clear the tribal regions in Pakistan of militants. He said that he had ordered the military to draw up a strategy that encompasses insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.

His remarks provoked concern in Pakistan.

“We are strategic allies of the United States,” the senior Pakistani official said. “Our nation has also suffered at the hands of terrorists. We are in this fight together, and for that reason, we should be working together and not against each other.”

  • This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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