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Robert Gates brings praise and pressure to Pakistan

The Defense secretary urges the government to keep after militants as he tries to reassure Pakistanis about U.S. intentions in the region and seeks to dispel conspiracy theories.

January 22, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes and Mark Magnier

U.S. officials want Pakistan to expand its military offensives to areas where Taliban groups active in Afghanistan find cross-border havens, most notably North Waziristan.

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters that it would be six months to a year before the military would be able to expand its offensive into that region.

"With all these operations, we are not in a position to get into an overstretch," he said.

But senior U.S. Defense officials said after Gates had spoken Thursday that it was clear the Pakistani military has "the will" to take on militants in North Waziristan.

"We are obviously encouraging of the Pakistani military pursuing these terrorists wherever they may be, but we are not prescribing any timeline," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Gates must be careful about how he applies pressure on Pakistan to increase its military action against militants. Neither the people nor the government reacts well to public demands from Washington, and a Pakistani government spokesman scolded Gates on Wednesday for comments he made in India about pressing Islamabad to do more about extremists.

Many Pakistanis believe U.S. military pressure in Afghanistan has pushed more militants into Pakistan, where they have launched deadly attacks on this country's cities.

"By being American allies, we are becoming more of a target," Gulzar Ahmad, 42, a government worker, said recently as he stood outside an Islamabad mosque. "Our government is supporting American infidels against Muslims and allowing foreign spies to roam freely in our country."

Even those who support U.S. efforts say Washington sometimes undercuts its own advances, including increasing aid for schools, healthcare and roads and greater Pakistani ownership of the counterinsurgency fight -- with clumsy decisions that seem arrogant.

Granting the Pakistani government the new drones could improve its stature among critics who argue that it has been little more than a lap dog to American interests. Some observers have said that joint management of the entire drone program, including those craft used to strike at Taliban and Al Qaeda targets, would go even further to improve Islamabad's standing.

"Right now it's seen as a poodle," military analyst Talat Masood, a former army lieutenant general, said recently. "At least it would become a bulldog."

Although the U.S. has said it would like to expand the help it offers Pakistan on military training, Gates emphasized Thursday that it was up to Islamabad to decide whether, when and how to expand the cooperation.

"We have quite an array" of resources and equipment to offer, Gates said. "But it is the Pakistanis who have their foot on the accelerator, not us, and so we have to do that in a way that's comfortable for them."

julian.barnes@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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