ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani army said Thursday during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that it can't launch any new offensives against militants for six months to a year to give it time to stabilize existing gains.
The announcement likely comes as a disappointment to the U.S., which has pushed Pakistan to expand its military operations to target militants staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan. Washington believes such action is critical to success in Afghanistan as it prepares to send an additional 30,000 troops to the country this year.
But the comments by army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas clearly indicate Pakistan will not be pressured in the near-term to 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.
"We are not talking years," Abbas told reporters traveling with Gates. "Six months to a year" would be needed before Pakistan could stabilize existing gains and expand any operations, he said.
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.
Gates said Thursday that he wouldn't directly press Pakistan to expand its military campaign but would instead ask his hosts what their plans are. He also said his talks with Pakistan's military and civilian leaders were intended to explain the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan.
The defense secretary told reporters traveling with him to Islamabad from India that he would reassure Pakistan that the United States is "in this for the long haul."
But President Barack Obama's comments in December that the U.S. would begin to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in mid-2011 have raised questions among many Pakistani officials about Washington's commitment.
Analysts say such concerns only reinforce the Pakistani government's reluctance to target the Afghan Taliban as requested by the U.S. Pakistan has deep historical ties with the group, and many analysts believe some officials within the government and the military see the militants as an important proxy once coalition troops leave Afghanistan.
Gates cautioned Pakistan against trying to distinguish between the different militant groups in an essay published Thursday in The News, an English-language Pakistani newspaper.
"It is important to remember that the Pakistani Taliban operates in collusion with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida, so it is impossible to separate these groups," Gates wrote.
"Only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good — to destroy those who promote the use of terror here and abroad," Gates said.
On of the goals of his trip, he said, is "a broader strategic dialogue — on the link between Afghanistan's stability and Pakistan's; stability in the broader region; the threat of extremism in Asia; efforts to reduce illicit drugs and their damaging global impact; and the importance of maritime security and cooperation."
Gates' first meeting Thursday is with Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar. He also has separate meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari.
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