How Gates, Mullen are building US military's ties with Pakistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Islamabad Thursday pledging to improve US-Pakistan relations – including building on Adm. Mike Mullen's efforts to mend fences with his military counterpart.

By , Staff Writer

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    Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, right, meets US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Thursday.
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When Adm. Mike Mullen first met the head of Pakistan’s Army two years ago, he carried a stern message: Do more to rein in insurgents.

Now, after more than a dozen face-to-face meetings and a number of drawn out dinners and late-night phone calls, the relationship between Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has evolved considerably, say aides. It is, in many ways, a metaphor for how the Obama administration is trying to mend US-Pakistani ties.

As part of that effort, Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Pakistan Thursday, pledging to improve relations between Washington and Islamabad.

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"The main focus of my visit is to provide reassurances that we are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs for far into the future," Mr. Gates said in a press briefing.

Mullen has been emphasizing that pledge.

Where once Mullen might have tried to foist training, equipment, and other resources on the Pakistanis to help them fight the war the US wants them to fight, Mullen now listens to Kayani more and offers US military assistance only if asked, aides say. And when he is asked, Mullen has sometimes gone to great lengths to show his commitment to his Pakistani counterpart – in one case, scouring the entire US aircraft arsenal in search of a specific helicopter.

It is a more-flies-with-honey approach – hoping respect will get what ultimatums did not. There are indications that it is beginning to work, though Pakistanis say they continue to be wary of US intentions.

Pakistan, after all, still isn’t targeting the three Pakistan-based networks that pose the greatest threat to the US and its allies in Afghanistan.

Behind this apparent dereliction is a simple calculation: Few in Pakistan are convinced that the United States is committed to the region for the long haul. So Pakistan has hedged its bets and is reluctant to target groups with which it has historically been allied – and may need again if American troops leave Afghanistan in chaos.

With his kinder, gentler tack, Mullen is trying to convince Kayani that the US no longer wants to use Pakistan as a short-term tool, but seeks a long-term partnership.

American officials who have criticized Pakistan for years are now citing signs of progress. Pakistan pushed roughly 200,000 troops to its western border to fight the militants in South Waziristan, killing more than 1,600 insurgents and detaining about 1,200 more.

The operations show a resolve that had been absent in previous campaigns.

“If somebody told me eight months ago that they’d still be fighting, I would have said, ‘No way,’ ” says one military officer in Islamabad, who, like another interviewed for this article, was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

From the Pakistani perspective, the relationship between Mullen and Kayani is “a very positive step,” says Imitiaz Ali, a Pakistan analyst at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington.

But Mullen has not achieved his ultimate goal: persuading Kayani to turn against the militant networks his Army once cultivated, and which are now killing American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

In South Waziristan, Pakistan is fighting the Pakistani Taliban – a militant group that targets Pakistan itself. They are not targeting the Afghan Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Pashtun leader in Quetta, Pakistan. Nor are they moving against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami around the Khyber Pass.

Mullen says Kayani is well aware of the threat posed by other groups. “He is very much aware of that threat, he knows it’s of great concern to us, and we have mutual interest in that,” Mullen said on his military jet in December. “There are in fact areas of great common interest that we’re focused on.”

Mullen’s relationship with Kayani is central to that task. Mullen doesn’t push Kayani too hard, now recognizing that Pakistan cannot be seen by its own people as an American puppet. Instead, Mullen accepts that Kayani will probably ask for what America wants to give him when it is in Pakistan’s best interests.

“[The Pakistanis] know that the offer is on the table,” said another American official, who is close to Mullen. “Mullen knows that there are lines Kayani won’t cross” to avoid the impression that he’s taking orders from the US.

But sometimes Kayani does have a “shopping list” – typically counterinsurgency must-haves like night-vision goggles and cold-weather gear.

Last year, Kayani had a bigger request. He asked Mullen for more helicopters. Mullen quickly asked his staff to “shake the trees” to find the one Kayani had requested – the Russian-designed Mi-17. Mullen’s staff found the helicopters – which the Pentagon barely knew it had.

Mullen visited Kayani again last month, meeting him in Islamabad before flying out in one of those American-supplied helicopters to the border region in South Waziristan. Kayani was eager to show Mullen the Army’s successes.

Insurgents had exploited a widely illiterate population, intimidating families to recruit male children or demanding payment of as much as 600 rupees ($7) to leave them alone.

Although about 2.4 million people were displaced, many have returned. The area is now considered one of the safest areas, says the military official in Islamabad.

“[Kayani] believes that the hearts and minds of the people have been won,” the official in Islamabad says.

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If the US is to defeat Al Qaeda and succeed in Afghanistan, it must have Pakistan's help. But Pakistan is wary of throwing in its lot with the US, seeing it as a fickle and inconstant ally. Mullen is trying to prove to Pakistan that the US is no longer just a fair-weather friend.

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