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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 Gordon LuboldStaff Writer / January 21, 2010

Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, right, meets US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Thursday.

Inter Services Public Relations department/ AP

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Washington

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.

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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.

"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.

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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