With violence worsening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, top U.S. military officers conducted a secret strategy session with commanders from Islamabad on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that he came away from the meeting encouraged that Pakistanis are focused on the problem of militants using the country as a safe haven. But he indicated he's not satisfied that Islamabad and Washington are doing the best job they can against the growing threat.
He also said he had no new details on the investigation into an operation that Afghan officials say killed between 76 and 90 Afghan civilians last Friday. The U.S. has said it killed 25 militants and five civilians during the raid and resulting air strikes on a compound in the Shindand district of Herat province.
"We work exceptionally hard to minimize any collateral damage — zero collateral damage is the goal," Mullen said, adding that the U.S. regrets it when it occurs.
Weeks of Pakistani offensives
The meeting on the aircraft carrier Tuesday came after several weeks of Pakistani offensives against militants in Pakistan's volatile northwest — an effort American officials welcome but say has come nowhere near to stemming growing problems near the Afghan border.
The meeting aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was the latest of several between Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, chief of staff of the Pakistani army.
Mullen told a Pentagon press conference that this time he also brought Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, who will soon leave to become the senior commander in the Middle East and Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of the Special Operations Command, and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, acting commander of American forces in the Middle East.
Also present was Gen. David McKiernan, NATO's commander in Afghanistan and Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, American military liaison in Pakistan.
Mullen declined to give details about discussions with Kayani, but said he has been moving in the right direction.
"Clearly, he's got a challenge," he said. "I'm encouraged that he's taken action and I also think it's going to take some time."
A U.S. official familiar with the discussion at Tuesday's meeting was "more collaborative," compared to a similar meeting a month ago when Mullen took a "more firm tone" in warning Kayani that Islamabad was not doing enough to counter militants waging cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's military said in a statement that it was a "prescheduled meeting aimed at discussing security matters at strategic level. The discussion was held in an open and cordial manner."
No new agreements
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the commanders analyzed the security situation in the region and that no new agreements were struck.
U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity about the meeting ahead of Mullen's press conference said it was not prompted by any recent political or military events, but rather planning for it began during Mullen's previous meeting with Kayani — a month ago in Pakistan.
Political turmoil has worsened in Pakistan — and violence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan — have increased since the last meeting.
Suspected militants bombed a bus carrying police and government officials in northwest Pakistan on Thursday, killing eight people, as fighting between security forces and extremists flared across the country's tribal belt.
The fresh violence comes days after ex-president Pervez Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, resigned as president, triggering a scramble for power that caused the country's ruling coalition to collapse.
Pakistan's five-month-old government initially sought to calm militant violence by holding peace talks. But U.S. officials have been pressing for tougher action against insurgents. Pakistan's army is now fighting insurgents in at least three areas of the northwest and claims to have killed several hundred militants in the recent offensives.
"They are doing more and becoming more effective," one U.S. defense official said privately of the effort. "But there is still a long way to go" in the tribal areas.
The second U.S. official said Pakistanis need to launch a "more concentrated effort."