Can Mullen get Pakistan to shut down its terrorist havens?

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Pakistan Tuesday to try to soothe old tensions. Pakistan distrusts US aims in Afghanistan, which makes it a less-than-perfect partner.

By , Staff writer

Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation’s top military officer, is seeking to reassure Pakistan's military and civilian leadership that the Afghanistan surge is part of a long-term commitment to the region – not just a short-term fix.

Mullen arrived here Tuesday for his 14th trip as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling the Pakistani military that the US seeks to reverse years of what one senior official called “mistrust and betrayal.” But Pakistan remains wary.

In particular, many Pakistanis feel that the US will abandon Afghanistan before the mission is accomplished, leaving Pakistan to pick up the pieces. They say that US commitment to the region has waxed hot and cold during the past two decades. They typically cite the 1980s, when the US funded the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, then ignored the country as it fell in chaos and civil war after the Soviets left.

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Mullen knows that he must overcome this deep skepticism of US intentions if he is to get Pakistan to cooperate fully in destroying the insurgency along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

“The lack of trust between our countries – there are a lot of reasons for that and I actually understand them,” Mullen told an audience of military officers at the National Defense University in Islamabad Tuesday evening. “One of my goals would be to … set the course of our relationship on a steady one, on a consistent one, and on a positive one.”

Pakistan's importance

Mullen’s visit here, part of a whistle stop tour through two war zones, followed one Monday by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command. The visits highlight Pakistan's importance. Al Qaeda and other militant groups have established refuge in Pakistan and use the porous border to stage attacks against US and coalition forces inside Afghanistan.

The US has pressed Pakistan to go after these insurgent groups but has faced resistance. The insurgents attacking US forces in Afghanistan (the Afghan Taliban) are different from those attacking Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban), and the Pakistan Army has said it must prioritize operations against the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban are suspected of being responsible for a car bomb near a lawmaker’s home in Punjab that killed as many as 33 people Tuesday.

In the past, Pakistan has also used elements of the Afghan Taliban to help stabilize Afghanistan after its post-Soviet civil war, and they could again be useful assets to Pakistan if Afghanistan collapses.

The US has responded by trying to strike a softer tone. In truth, it has little choice than to press the reset button with Pakistan if it is to try to defeat the Al Qaeda network, let alone kill or capture Osama bin Laden.

Signs of progress

There are signs of progress. For a country fixated on the threat from India along its eastern border, Pakistan has mounted a serious effort against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal regions and along its western border with Afghanistan. Given that the Pakistani Taliban do not focus on Afghanistan, the offensives have little bearing on the Afghan insurgency. But they represent at least an acknowledgment of the broader insurgent threat.

The Pakistan military currently has seven combat divisions, or about 200,000 troops, fighting insurgent groups along the Afghan border. It is carrying out a major operation in the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. More than 2,000 members of the Pakistan military have been killed since operations began eight months ago, a sign of the Pakistani commitment, said a senior military official.

“As a military officer, I am actually pretty impressed by the level of effort the Pakistani Army is making,” said the officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The Pakistan Army's view

Reaction to the Obama administration’s way forward on Afghanistan, however, has been “muted” within the Pakistani military, said the military official.

Long memories remain. Pakistanis remember how the US denied economic and military assistance to their country altogether when Pakistan responded to India by building its own nuclear weapon. Then, after 9/11, when American self interests were again at stake, the US rushed to Pakistan's side. The feeling that it has often been used by the US defines the US-Pakistan relationship and fuels anti-Americanism here.

The sense that America only thinks in the short term has led to Pakistan's decision not to go after Siraj Haqqani, the leader of one of the most dangerous terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan, according to a report in The New York Times. Pakistan has long seen him as a potential asset, the report says.

Pakistani military officers who have spent time with the American military generally look at Obama Afghan plan optimistically, while those who have no such relationship view the new strategy negatively, the officer said.

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