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US Defense Chief to Reassure Pakistan on Partnership

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Pakistan for two days of meetings with civilian and military leaders, mainly to discuss America's strategy for Afghanistan. Gates says he hopes he can assure Pakistan that the United States wants to be an ally "for the long haul."

The arrival of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Pakistan Thursday marked his first visit in the year since Barack Obama became president.

Gates met with several Pakistani leaders, including his counterpart, Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, the country's military chief General Ashfaq Kayani and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Before landing in Islamabad, Gates told reporters on board his aircraft that the main focus of his trip will be to discuss President Barack Obama's new Afghan strategy.

The strategy calls for the deployment of tens of thousands of more troops in the first half of this year to Afghanistan. The plan also calls for the possible beginning of a troop withdrawal in the middle of next year.

Gates said he wants to make it clear on this trip that the United States plans to have a long-term partnership with Pakistan.

"We are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs for far into the future," he said.

Gates also said he hopes to convince Pakistan to expand its counterterrorism operations. Pakistani Army spokesman Athar Abbas said Thursday Pakistan does not plan to expand its offensive against the militants in the northwest of the country for six months to a year. He says the Pakistani military needs time to stabilize the gains it has already made.

However Gates says the United States wants Pakistan to target syndicates of the Taliban that take refuge in Pakistan but strike at coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"You can't ignore one part of this cancer and pretend it won't have some impact closer to home," he said.

But Quaid-i-Azam University associate professor of International Relations, Ishtiaq Ahmad, tells VOA that Pakistan has not forgotten the fallout from the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.

Pakistan partnered with the United States and its Afghan allies in fighting the Soviets. But when the former Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the United States largely left the region. Ahmad says this caused a power vacuum that allowed the Taliban to rise to power.

The professor says President Obama's announcement of a troop pullout from Afghanistan starting in mid-2011 is worrying to Pakistan.

"Pakistanis cannot be expected to really firmly guarantee and pursue a counterterrorism strategy that does not make any distinctions between one Taliban group and another Taliban group," he said.

Pakistan currently is engaged in a fight against one faction of Taliban that is headquartered in the country's South Waziristan tribal region. The government blames these so-called Pakistani Taliban for a series of attacks across the country that has killed hundreds of civilians.

But so far, Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to attack the Afghan Taliban on its side of the border.