WASHINGTON The United States can win its nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan even if neighboring Pakistan does not shut down militant safe havens on its side of the border, a top U.S. commander said on Tuesday.
The United States has sought for years to pressure Pakistan to take on Islamist insurgents who have sought refuge in Pakistani border sanctuaries of North Waziristan from where they attack Western forces in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan says it needs first to consolidate gains made elsewhere before going into North Waziristan, often called the epicenter of global jihadism.
"That's not a mission-stopper in my mind," Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Asked whether U.S. could be successful without additional Pakistani action, Rodriguez said: "I think we can."
"We need them (Pakistan) to do more. We're going to encourage them to do more, because that makes it easier on what we're doing (in Afghanistan)," he said.
"But I think it's still doable without them, you know, decreasing what they've been doing the past year ...."
General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, praised Pakistani advances against insurgents elsewhere, telling an audience in London: "When you look at the last two years and the thousands of dead, the Pakistan military is not standing idly by."
President Barack Obama has called the Taliban presence in Pakistan a "cancer," and U.S. intelligence agencies have argued that the prospect for success in the Afghan war was questionable, in part because of the safe havens.
"I view this similar to secure a bridge. When you're told tactically to secure a bridge you can't just do it from one side," said an expert on Afghanistan and former U.S. adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You do have to do something on the Pakistan side of the bridge."
NORTH WAZIRISTAN HAVENS
The CIA has been conducting a secret campaign using drone aircraft to kill al Qaeda and other militants in Pakistan and these efforts have been intensified in recent months. But the question remains as to when Pakistan will go after the havens in North Waziristan.
Critics say Pakistan is reluctant to move into North Waziristan partly because it is home to the Haqqani network, a long-time insurgent faction allied with the Afghan Taliban. The network is thought by security analysts to be one of Pakistan's more powerful assets in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long demanded a say in any peace settlement in Afghanistan, and groups such as the Haqqani network ensure that it can influence any future deal and check rival any advances in Kabul by India, Pakistan's arch foe.
Rodriguez, speaking just months before U.S. forces in Afghanistan are set to start drawing down in July, said that Afghan security forces would need to be larger and stronger to deal with the Taliban, if the safe havens were to remain.
But he was also hopeful of increased Pakistani cooperation, and cited improvements in coordination on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"We need them to continue to do what they've been doing," he said, citing operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Swat Valley and elsewhere. "We're working with them so that they work that piece."
Rodriguez was upbeat about progress on the ground in Afghanistan but said the Taliban were not "on the ropes yet."
He expected them to resort to less direct methods of confrontation in the coming year, including using "assassination hit teams" to target Afghan political leaders and Taliban defectors.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; editing by Christopher Wilson)