Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made an unannounced trip to Pakistan on Monday for talks with one of America’s most complicated partners. He offered strong words of support for the government, even as he urged it to do more to halt the flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan.
Gates volunteered the help of the United States in easing a war of words between Afghanistan and Pakistan over border areas inside Pakistan that are being used as safe havens for fighters for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
After meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, he told reporters that he was flying back to Washington reassured that Pakistan would work more strenuously to halt insurgents from crossing the border to attack American, NATO and Afghan troops.
“If we weren’t concerned about what was happening along the border, I wouldn’t be here,” Gates said.
He had flown to Islamabad for a one-hour meeting with Musharraf nearby in Rawalpindi. Gates had spent the weekend in Munich, Germany, at a security conference.
Senior American officials said the effort emphasized American support for an often-criticized ally who assists the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts but who has been unable to prevent Islamic militants from using the country as a base.
Gates and Musharraf discussed plans by NATO and Afghan forces for a spring offensive against the Taliban, who were ousted from power in Afghanistan by American-led forces in late 2001 and who normally carry out a fresh round of attacks with the first thaw.
Asked about reports that American troops in Afghanistan had been shelling Taliban positions across the border in Pakistan, Gates did not respond specifically, but said, “Our operations are coordinated with the Pakistanis.”
A former director of the CIA, Gates said he first visited Pakistan 20 years ago in an effort to support anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan. After the Soviets were routed, Gates said, the United States erred by neglecting the region, allowing militants to take over. The result, he said, was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, planned by leaders of al-Qaida under Taliban protection in Afghanistan.
“We will not make that mistake again,” he said. “We are here for the long haul.”
Gates said the Pakistani president had acknowledged difficulties in enforcing a peace deal reached late last year with tribal militias in North Waziristan, a semiautonomous area on the border with Afghanistan.
Musharraf has said that the pact has been a partial success and that it is being enforced more successfully now, but critics say the truce allowed the Taliban to consolidate forces, rest and retrain.
Pakistani officials have said that the responsibility for securing the border should be shared with the United States, NATO and Afghan forces across the frontier. But the cross-border movements by insurgent fighters have prompted accusations back and forth over who bears culpability for allowing the Taliban to reassemble their forces.