- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

The head of the U.S. Central Command said Sunday that Taliban militants increasing foothold in the mountains “threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state” but that he is confident Pakistan’s military will protect its nuclear arsenal.

“Certainly the next few weeks will be very important in this effort to roll back, if you will, this existential threat, a true threat to Pakistan’s very existence that has been posed by the Pakistani Taliban,” Gen. David Petraeus said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Gen. Petraeus added that reports of brutality and repression by the Taliban in northwest Pakistan have helped rally public support for the country’s recent military offensive into the region to fight the militant organization — a scenario that could turn the tide of the Pakistan’s ongoing battle against the group.

“The actions of the Pakistani Taliban … have galvanized all of Pakistan — not just the president and the prime minister but also even the opposition leaders, virtually all the elements of the political spectrum and the people,” the general said. “So there is a degree of unanimity that there must be swift and effective action taken against the Taliban in Pakistan.”

Pakistan says it has 175,000 forces fighting into the rugged and mountainous region to defeat Taliban fighters who had taken over after been driven out Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces.

Gen. Petraeus said Pakistani authorities have responded well to increased Taliban activity in the region. After meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his aides this past week, the general said the leader and his delegation have a good understanding of how best to fight and root out the Taliban.

“It was very clear in discussions with everyone … that there’s an understanding that this does have to be a whole-of-government approach,” Gen. Patraeus said. “In other words, not just the military but all the rest of the elements of government supporting the military so that they can reestablish basic services, repair the damage that is inevitably done by the bombardment of these areas in which the Taliban are located and to take care of the internally displaced persons.”

Gen. Petraeus said that U.S. military and security experts don’t believe that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in danger of falling into the hand of the Taliban.

“We have confidence in their security procedures and elements and believe that the security of those [nuclear] sites is adequate,” he said.

But the general added that it’s up to Pakistan — not the United States — ultimately to defeat Taliban militants in Pakistan.

“This is not a U.S. fight that Pakistan is carrying out at this point in this effort,” he said. “This is a Pakistani fight, a Pakistani battle.”

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