Gates apologises for past US policies toward Pakistan

In his first visit to Pakistan in three years, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates apologised for past "grave" mistakes, including cutting off defence ties with Pakistan during the 1990s.


AFP - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates took on his critics in Pakistan on Friday, apologising for past "grave" mistakes as he works to bolster ties with Washington's key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

In his first visit to the country in three years and first under US President Barack Obama, Gates tried to reassure a public and leadership wary of Washington's plan to tackle militancy and turn around the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has seen security drastically deteriorate since partnering in Washington's so-called "war on terror" in 2001, and balks at complaints from US officials that it is not doing enough to tackle militant groups.

US drone strikes targeting Islamist fighters in Pakistan also stir anger in the Muslim nation, while many Pakistanis feel bitterness over US abandonment of the region once the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

"I was in government in the early 1990s, when Russia left the region and the United States largely abandoned Afghanistan and cut off defence ties with Pakistan -- a grave strategic mistake driven by some well-intentioned but short-sighted US legislative and policy decisions," said Gates.

Speaking at the National Defense University in Islamabad, he said a US ban on military contacts in the 1990s over Pakistan's nuclear programme undermined a bond between the armed forces and created a "trust deficit" that lingered.

He vowed the United States was "prepared to invest whatever time and energy it takes to forge and sustain a genuine, lasting partnership" with Pakistan.

Rebuilding relationships with a generation of Pakistani officers who have had little contact with the US military will take years, Gates said.

But Gates appeared to have already rattled Pakistan's military this trip, with comments Thursday warning that Taliban sanctuaries must be tackled or Pakistan and Afghanistan would suffer "more lethal and more brazen" attacks.

In the editorial in English-language daily The News, Gates wrote that making distinctions between the different extremist groups -- as Pakistan is often accused of doing -- was "counterproductive".

While Pakistan has launched multiple assaults on local Taliban strongholds in recent months, Washington is also anxious for Islamabad to target the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants within its borders as well.

Pakistan's military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas rejected Gates's description and said it was not so "black and white".

Gates also said he would ask Pakistani leaders about plans to expand its campaign to North Waziristan, a bastion of Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, known for attacking US and NATO troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But Abbas told reporters no new operations would be launched until the current push into South Waziristan was complete, which would take "between six months to a year to completely stabilise."

Gates on Thursday held talks with Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, intelligence chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha and President Asif Ali Zardari.

The former CIA director is also seeking Islamabad's cooperation on Obama's new strategy to turn around the war in Afghanistan, which involves sending more troops into Afghanistan but drawing down forces in July 2011.

Officials in Islamabad have expressed concern that any troop surge in Afghanistan will send insurgents over the border into Pakistan, further destabilising an already lawless border region.

"The United States also wants to develop a broader strategic dialogue with Pakistan" on a range of issues, including "the possible role of political solutions to the insurgency in Afghanistan," Gates told reporters.


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