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Defense secretary vows to work with Pakistan

Pentagon chief Robert Gates vowed Monday that the United States will not neglect Pakistan and will work with the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to combat the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, Pervez Musharraf
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, left, meets visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his office in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Monday. Gates sought Pakistan's support to prevent an expected Taliban spring attack in neighboring Afghanistan, saying the allies had the chance to deal a "strategic setback" to the militants.Pakistan Press via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pentagon chief Robert Gates vowed Monday that the United States will not neglect Pakistan and will work with the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to combat the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

After meeting with Musharraf for about an hour at one of Musharaff’s homes in Islamabad, Gates told reporters the two had discussed how Pakistan and the United States can work together on a spring offensive against the Taliban.

Gates also said he hopes to play a constructive role in improving the relationship between Musharaff and the Afghan government.

He reiterated other U.S. officials’ remarks that the United States neglected the region for 20 years, contributing to a rise of terrorism in the region and the strengthening of al-Qaida in Afghanistan where the terrorist group was harbored by the Taliban.

"After the Soviets left, the United States made a mistake. We neglected Afghanistan and extremism took control of that country," Gates told a news conference at the Chaklala military air base in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

"The United States paid a price for that on Sept 11, 2001," Gates said, referring to attacks on the United States by al-Qaida, whose leader was harbored by the Taliban. "We won't make that mistake again."

Border efforts
Gates also planned talks with top Pakistani officials on cooperation in counterterrorism and efforts by Pakistan to stop militants from moving across the border with Afghanistan, a senior Pakistani government official said Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have the authority to speak formally about Gates’ visit.

Pakistan denies the charges that the Taliban are staging attacks from inside Pakistan and says it has deployed some 80,000 troops along its rugged border with Afghanistan to track down militants.

Pakistan’s border regions along Afghanistan long have been suspected to be the hiding places for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

American forces in eastern Afghanistan have launched artillery rounds into Pakistan to strike Taliban fighters who attack remote U.S. outposts, the commander of U.S. forces in the region told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Musharraf acknowledged recently that his outgunned Pakistani frontier guards have allowed insurgents to cross the border and said the army soon would fence parts of the border to stem the problem.

The Pentagon has plans to extend its recent buildup of several thousand combat troops in Afghanistan, initially announced as lasting until late spring, well into next year, a senior U.S. military official said last week.

That move would keep U.S. troop levels at between 26,000 and 27,000 until at least the spring of 2008.

Invitation to Russia
Before leaving Munich, where he attended a regional security conference, Gates responded Sunday to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on U.S. foreign policy by saying “one Cold War is enough” and that he would go to Moscow to try to reduce tensions. Gates also sought more allied help in Afghanistan.

He delivered his first speech as Pentagon chief at a security conference in Germany and then flew to Pakistan to discuss fears of a renewed spring offensive by Taliban fighters in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan, a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has faced charges that the Taliban militia stage attacks from Pakistan against Afghan government troops and NATO- and U.S.-led coalition troops.

Gates’ rebuke of the Russian president relied on humor and some pointed jabs.

“As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost,” Gates said. Then, as the audience chuckled, the defense secretary said he has accepted Putin’s invitation to visit Russia.

“We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia,” said Gates. “One Cold War was quite enough.”

In his speech Saturday, Putin blamed U.S. foreign policy for inciting other countries to seek nuclear weapons to defend themselves from an “almost uncontained use of military force.”

The Russian leader said “unilateral, illegitimate actions have not solved a single problem, they have become a hotbed of further conflicts” and that “one state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”

'A mark of shame'
Gates also made an urgent call for NATO allies to live up to their promises to supply military and economic aid for Afghanistan.

“It is vitally important that the success Afghanistan has achieved not be allowed to slip away through neglect or lack of political will or resolve,” Gates said. Failure to muster a strong military effort combined with economic development and a counternarcotics plan “would be a mark of shame,” he said.

Gates also said that prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other mistakes have damaged America’s reputation. It will take work, he said, to prove that the U.S. still is a force for good in the world.

While he did not mention the war in Iraq, Gates told officials at the security conference that Washington must do a better job of explaining its policies and actions.

For the past century, he said, most people believed that “while we might from time to time do something stupid, that we were a force for good in the world.”

Many continue to believe that, Gates said. But, he added, “I think we also have made some mistakes and have not presented our case as well as we might in many instances. I think we have to work on that.”

The bulk of his speech was devoted to the future of the NATO alliance and the need to work together to defend against threats.

Gates also sketched out the challenges ahead, from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the situation in the Middle East to China’s recent anti-satellite tests and Russia’s arms sales.

Just eight weeks on the job, Gates used the conference and a NATO gathering this past week to debut on the international stage and meet privately with some of his counterparts.

In other comments, he said the Bush administration would like to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, but there are some terrorists there who should never be let free. Gates also said detainee trials there will be conducted in the open and with adequate defense for the prisoners.

Diplomacy test
The first public test of Gates’ diplomatic skills came at a venue that at times was dominated by his more bombastic Pentagon predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

So as Gates neared the end of his remarks, he made a deliberate move to separate himself from Rumsfeld.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld sharply criticized nations opposed to the conflict — specifically France and Germany — and referred to them as part of “Old Europe.”

Without mentioning Rumsfeld’s name, Gates said some people have tried to divide the allies along lines such as East and West, North and South.

“I’m even told that some have even spoken in terms of ’old’ Europe versus ’new,”’ Gates said. “All of these characterizations belong in the past.”