ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Pakistani leaders on Thursday to urge them to begin hunting down Afghan Taliban on their border, but signaled the United States would not push the pace of operations.
Pakistan ruled out a new offensive against militants soon, saying it had to consolidate gains against its home-grown Pakistani Taliban, fighting to bring down the government.
Islamabad has mounted big offensives against Pakistani Taliban factions, but has resisted U.S. pressure to go after Afghan Taliban in border enclaves who do not strike in Pakistan but cross the border to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Gates, on his first trip to Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year, is visiting after a period of tense relations marked by suspicion on both sides.
Keen to dispel what he called a trust deficit, Gates praised Pakistan’s offensive against its al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban and assured U.S. support for future operations.
“We are not attempting to push them to pursue this any faster than they are comfortable doing, and that they are capable of doing,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
“Their military is operating at a higher operational tempo than it has in recent memory and they are being stretched very thin, as our military is for that matter.”
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as tools to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and as potential allies in Afghanistan if U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, leave the country in chaos.
Gates said in a commentary in a Pakistani newspaper that making a distinction between Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan allies was counterproductive and all factions had to be tackled.
Pakistan and the United States have long been allies but ties have been strained by U.S. calls for Pakistan to do more to stop militants crossing from its lawless ethnic Pashtun borderlands to fight in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan’s military spokesman said there would be no new offensives for up to a year.
“We are not in a position to get overstretched,” the spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, told reporters.
Abbas also challenged the U.S. assertion that the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups were all linked: “The answer can’t be in black and white.”
Gates, who was defense secretary under former U.S. president George W. Bush and last visited Pakistan in 2007, said the United States was committed to a stable, long-term, strategic partnership with a democratic Pakistan.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES “NONSENSE”
Gates, who flew in from India, met army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and other top security officials as well as Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar and President Asif Ali Zardari on the first day of a two-day trip.
The U.S. military is pouring 30,000 additional troops into neighboring Afghanistan to root out Taliban safe havens.
Pakistan is worried extra the U.S. troops will lead to a spill-over of fighting across the border. Gates said he would be explaining the Afghan strategy.
He said he would also raise thorny issues, including manifestations of anti-Americanism that include “problems with our visas and harassment of our people.”
U.S. officials said last month Pakistan was delaying hundreds of visas for U.S. officials and contractors, which could hamper U.S. aid programs.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States attributed the delay in part to bureaucratic inefficiency, coupled with an “exponential” growth in the number of Americans in Pakistan.
The United States is Pakistan’s biggest aid donor and has given about $15 billion, including security assistance, since Pakistan signed up to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But many Pakistanis are skeptical of the campaign and also believe the United States wants to confiscate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Gates said such conspiracy theories were “nonsense.”
Another source of friction is strikes by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on militants in northwest Pakistan.
Gates declined to comment on military operations but said avoiding civilian casualties was central to U.S. strategy and the United States was mindful of Pakistan’s sovereignty. He also said Washington was considering supplying surveillance drones.
Pakistan is suspicious of closer ties between the United States and India and is keen to exclude India from any role in plans to stabilize Afghanistan. An international conference of Afghanistan is being held in London at the end of the month.
(Writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Andrew Roche)