- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Pakistani army said Thursday it cannot expand its offensive against militants for at least six months, and the United States backed off public pressure on an ally considered vital in the war next door in Afghanistan.

Remarks from the Army’s chief spokesman during a visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates did not rule out the offensive the United States would like to see, against militants who target U.S. forces in Afghanistan from hide-outs in Pakistan.

“We are not talking years,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates. “Six months to a year” would be needed before Pakistan could consolidate the gains it has made against militants in other parts of the country and then consider going further, he said.

“By a lot of hard work, we brought public support on board,” for campaigns last year in the Swat valley and South Waziristan, he said.

U.S. officials appeared to accept Pakistan’s rationale that it has limited military resources and cannot risk getting ahead of the public’s acceptance for a campaign that involves killing fellow Muslims.

“We have to do this in a way that is comfortable for them, and at a pace that they can accommodate and is tolerable for them,” Mr. Gates said ahead of meetings with Pakistani civilian and military leaders. “Frankly, I’m comfortable doing that. I think having them set that pace as to what they think the political situation will bear is almost certainly the right thing to do.”

The Obama administration has taken a softer tone with Pakistan in recent months, praising the country’s unprecedented assault on militants inside its borders.

In meetings Thursday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s army chief and others, Mr. Gates called the anti-terror operations a success so far, “and he acknowledged to all of them that we realize that has come with a great deal of sacrifice for the military,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said after the sessions.

“We are not trying to prescribe a timeline by which they must do things,” Mr. Morrell said.

Maj. Gen. Abbas’ comments clearly indicate Pakistan will not be pressured to quickly expand its fight beyond militants waging war against the Pakistani state. Whether it can be convinced in the long term is still an open question.

The Pakistani army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban’s main stronghold near the Afghan border in mid-October, triggering a wave of retaliatory violence across the country that has killed more than 600 people.

Washington believes Pakistani pressure on militants staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan is critical to success in Afghanistan as it sends an additional 30,000 troops to the country this year.

Referring to intense political pressure in Washington to lean harder on Pakistan, Mr. Gates sounded sanguine.

“As I try to remind Congress from time to time, and frankly some of the folks in the administration, it’s the Pakistanis who have their foot on the accelerator, not us,” Mr. Gates told reporters at the start of his two-day visit to Pakistan.

The political pressure goes two ways. Suspicion of U.S. motives runs high in Pakistan, and many Pakistanis bristle as the notion that Washington could dictate the country’s priorities even with a recent promise of an unprecedented $1.5 billion in annual aid.

In an interview Thursday with local Express TV, Mr. Gates said the U.S. has no intention or desire to take over control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, occupy or split up the country, or divide the Muslim world.

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