- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani officials voiced fears Wednesday that a U.S.-led offensive in southern Afghanistan could force Taliban fighters into Pakistan’s restive southwest, but said they had not asked the Americans to stop or slow the operation.

The concerns surfaced during a visit to Pakistan by special U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, who assured Islamabad of Washington’s desire to coordinate on anti-militant operations, even as he noted that Taliban militants still move freely across the Pakistan-Afghan border.

“We want to be sure that we share with your government and your military, military plans so you can be prepared and coordinate because a lot of different things can happen here,” Mr. Holbrooke told reporters after meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister.

The U.S. is eager to ensure Pakistan’s cooperation in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. For years, attempts to crack down on militants in Afghanistan have been undermined by their ability to find safe havens across the lengthy, rugged and porous border in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s role is especially critical now that the U.S. has sent thousands more troops to Afghanistan to take on a resurgent Taliban.

Early this month, some 4,000 U.S. Marines launched an operation against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, which borders Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The offensive comes ahead of next month’s Afghan presidential elections.

Bombs killed two U.S. soldiers and one Briton in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. The NATO-led force released no other details about the deaths. July has been the deadliest month for U.S. and NATO forces. Wednesday’s deaths raised the American toll to 34, surpassing the 28 who were killed in two months last summer.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official said Islamabad has “reservations” about the Helmand offensive because militants crossing the border could further destabilize Baluchistan, long the scene of a low-level insurgency by nationalist groups seeking more autonomy.

NATO’s spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, said so far there was no sign that significant numbers of Taliban fighters were fleeing into Pakistan from Helmand and most were heading for safe havens “that are yet to be cleared” by NATO and Afghan forces.

Pakistani officials agreed but said they had sent more troops to the 160-mile-long stretch of border.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani renewed calls for the United States to provide his country with advanced military technology and weapons, including pilotless drone planes, to help in the battle against Taliban militants in the northwest, Reuters news agency reported.

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