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US Defense Secretary Works to Build Trust in Pakistan

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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Washington is seeking to build bridges with Pakistani military leaders to try to end what he calls a "trust deficit" that has hampered cooperation against extremism. Secretary Gates was addressing army officers Friday at Islamabad's National Defense University, Pakistan's most prestigious military academy.

A day after meeting with Pakistan's civilian and military leaders, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the gathering of army officers that counter-extremism cooperation between the Pakistani military and U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan has improved in the last year.

He says the United States has given significant financial and technical assistance to support Pakistan's anti-militancy efforts. The Defense Secretary says Washington is prepared to invest whatever time and energy it takes to forge and sustain what he described as genuine and lasting partnership with Pakistan.

"I was in government in early 1990s, when Russia left the region and the U.S largely abandoned Afghanistan and cut off defense ties with Pakistan-a grave strategic mistake driven by some well-intentioned but short-sighted U.S. legislative and policy decisions. Perhaps the greatest consequence of those choices was the severing of military-to-military relations. That is largely the reason for a very real, and very understandable, trust deficit, one that has made it more difficult for us to work together to confront the common threat of extremism. This unfortunate reality has tainted the perception of the United States in Pakistan," he said.

Secretary Gates says that extremism is a threat to both Pakistan and the United States but distrust has allowed their common enemy to fuel anti-Americanism in the country. 

Gates arrived in Islamabad Thursday and in meetings with President Asif Ali Zardari, the country's army chief and others, he praised ongoing anti-terror operations as a success so far, saying Washington acknowledged the human losses Pakistan's military has suffered in this fight.

However, speaking to reporters earlier on Friday, the top U.S defense official did not repeat the usual U.S call for Pakistan to extend military operations to the North Waziristan tribal region. The area borders Afghanistan is believed to be used by Afghan and al-Qaida operatives to launch cross-border raids into Afghanistan targeting foreign troops. 

Secretary Gates said it is not for the United States to tell Pakistan when and where to launch their next operation.

"Pakistan leadership will make its own decisions about what the best timing for their military operations is about when they are ready to do something or whether they are going to do at all. The way I like to express it is we are in this car together and but the Pakistanis are in the driver's seat and have their foot on the accelerator," he said. 

Pakistani forces are engaged in an anti-Taliban operation in another border region known as South Waziristan. Critics say the offensive is targeting militants that Pakistan believes are attacking the state and are behind deadly suicide as well as other terror acts across the country.

It is also alleged that Islamabad is resisting Washington's pressure to go after Afghan Taliban who do not hit targets inside Pakistan but are engaged in attacks across the Afghan border. Analysts believe the Pakistani military establishment considers the Afghan militants as a counterbalance to the growing influence of arch rival India in Afghanistan. 

But while addressing the military officers, the Defense Secretary reiterated that Pakistani Taliban operates in collusion with both the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaida and said that maintaining a distinction between some violent extremist groups is counterproductive. As Secretary Gates puts it, only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge.

Many in Pakistan are skeptical of the U.S war against extremist groups, believing it is aimed at suppressing Muslims and meant to pave the way for Washington to confiscate Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

But in his speech, Secretary Gates dismissed the skepticism as an organized propaganda campaign by extremists. He said that the United States has no design on Pakistan's nuclear program or as he put it, a single inch of Pakistani soil and has no desire to control the country's nuclear weapons.

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