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ISLAMABAD (AP) – The United States has no designs on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or “a single inch of Pakistani soil,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Pakistani military officers Friday, adding that fighting terrorists along the Afghan border is in Pakistan’s interest as well as Washington’s.
“We have enemies in common along the border, but we also have many other interests in common,” Gates said, and the Pakistani military has choices to make about its resources and focus just as the U.S. armed forces have done.
Addressing the legacy of mistrust and what he called an “organized propaganda campaign” to misrepresent U.S. intentions, Gates ticked off some of the allegations against the United States in wide circulation in Pakistan.
“I fully understand why some of you may be skeptical about the U.S. commitment to Pakistan,” Gates told officers at Pakistan’s National Defense University.
Many in his audience came of professional age in the 1990s, when the United States had cut off military ties to Pakistan and largely ignored the growth of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In a closed-door question and answer session, Gates disputed the notion that Pakistan’s terrorism problems are largely the fault of the United States, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
In two days of meetings with Pakistan’s senior civilian and military leaders and new interviews, Gates missed no chance to praise the country’s year-old offensive against militants and note the military casualties it has brought.
He was exceedingly gentle in addressing what had been a central goal of the United States: Persuading Pakistan to expand its campaign to the western border with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants use Pakistani refuges to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“The Pakistani leadership will make its own decisions” about when or whether to make that leap, Gates said during an interview with Pakistani and U.S. journalists. “That’s just fine with me.”
The Obama administration has taken a softer tone with Pakistan after pressure to take on the militants and break any lingering government ties with extremist groups were seen as meddling. Administration officials have also dropped references to Afghanistan and Pakistan as one theater of war, and now refrain from using the shorthand “Af-Pak” that annoyed both countries.
In his speech to military officers, Gates said the U.S. seeks no military bases in the country and has no desire to control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
“The United States does not covet a single inch of Pakistani soil,” Gates said.
The Pakistani army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban’s main stronghold near the Afghan border in mid-October, triggering a wave of retaliatory violence across the country that has killed more than 600 people.
Washington believes Pakistani pressure on militants staging cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan is critical to success in Afghanistan as it sends an additional 30,000 troops to the country this year.
In meetings Thursday with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s army chief and others, Gates called the antiterror operations a success so far, “and he acknowledged to all of them that we realize that has come with a great deal of sacrifice for the military,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said following the sessions.
“We are not trying to prescribe a timeline by which they must do things,” Morrell said.
The Pakistani army said Thursday it cannot expand its offensive against militants for at least six months, after time to consolidate gains made against militants who primarily target Pakistan. Remarks from the Army’s chief spokesman did not rule out the offensive that would more directly benefit the United States.
“We are not talking years,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters traveling with Gates. “Six months to a year” would be needed before Pakistan could consolidate the gains it has made against militants in other parts of the country and then consider going farther, he said.