Pakistan is taking a more welcoming view of U.S. suggestions for using American troops to train and advise its own forces in the fight against anti-government extremists, a role that would be "more robust," the commander of U.S. forces in that region said Wednesday.
Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, said he believes increased violence inside Pakistan in recent months has led Pakistani leaders to conclude that they must focus more intensively on al-Qaida hideouts near the border with Afghanistan.
He called this an important change from Pakistan’s traditional focus on India as the main threat to its security, and it meshes with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent comment that al-Qaida terrorists hiding in the border area are increasingly aiming their campaign of violence at targets inside Pakistan.
“They see they’ve got real problems internally,” Fallon said in a 20-minute interview with three reporters accompanying Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a private conference here of military chiefs from Middle Eastern countries, hosted by Fallon. Pakistan was not attending.
In the latest sign of trouble, the Pakistani military said Wednesday that Islamic militants overran a military outpost close to the Afghan border in a battle that killed seven Pakistani soldiers and left 20 missing.
Although Pakistan has been a close U.S. ally in the war against terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, the extent of U.S. military involvement inside Pakistan is a highly sensitive subject among Pakistanis.
U.S. role to be 'more robust'
“My sense is there is an increased willingness to address these problems, and we’re going to try to help them,” Fallon said. He said U.S. assistance would be “more robust,” but he offered few details. “There is more willingness to do that now” on Pakistan’s part, he said.
The Bush administration’s anxiety about Pakistan’s stability has grown in recent months, not only because of its potential implications for U.S. stability efforts in neighboring Afghanistan but also because of worry about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Senior U.S. military officials have visited there recently, including Navy Adm. Eric Olsen, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
In the interview in the seaside hotel where he and Mullen were meeting with Middle Eastern military chiefs, Fallon said he is concerned about weak coordination of U.S. and NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. But he stressed that the security situation in Afghanistan is better than many realize.
“Our guys really get it,” he said, referring to the 27,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He said they are making inroads against the Taliban insurgency and he sees prospects for more gains this year.
Asked to assess the performance of NATO troops, who are in charge of the overall security mission, Fallon demurred.
“I will not pass judgment” on NATO’s efforts, he said, noting that he was aware of a Los Angeles Times story published Wednesday that quoted Gates as questioning the competence of NATO forces operating in southern Afghanistan, heartland of the Pashtun tribal area that gave rise to the Taliban movement.
“I’m worried we’re deploying (military advisers) that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations,” Gates was quoted as saying in a Times interview.
Seeking 'better effect' in Afghanistan
Fallon said he is overseeing a review of the Afghanistan mission, including not only the security effort but also the work in the political and economic realms.
“A lot of this is less coordinated than it might be, and if we could figure out how to get it harnessed together we might be able to leverage all the (contributions) ... to better effect,” Fallon said.
Fallon said expanded U.S. military assistance to Pakistan would include, but is not limited to, a U.S. training program for tribal groups in the federally administered tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The admiral is to visit Pakistan and Afghanistan next week.
He said he has been impressed with Pakistan’s new military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who took over in December from President Pervez Musharraf.
“I was very heartened by his understanding of what the problems are and what he’s going to need to do to meet them,” Fallon said.