By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Pakistan's leaders and military cannot publicly support U.S. cross-border operations against militant groups in Pakistan's western tribal areas, but such strikes are needed to protect American troops in Afghanistan and defend the United States against its gravest terrorist threat, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
"We will do what is necessary to protect our troops," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Asked whether Pakistan's government would back unilateral U.S. military operations into Pakistan, he said: "I don't think they can do that."
Gates said that despite a growing insurgency in Afghanistan, fueled by fighters from Pakistan, the spring of 2009 is the earliest the Pentagon would be able to send as many as three more U.S. combat brigades there to meet a request of American commanders for about 10,000 more troops.
"I believe we will be able to meet that commanders' requirement, but in the spring and summer of 2009," Gates said.
Western Pakistan has surpassed Afghanistan and Iraq as the base for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that now pose the biggest terrorist threat to the United States, Gates said. "If you ask me today, after the successes that we've had against al-Qaeda in Iraq, where the greatest threat to the homeland lies, I would tell you it's in western Pakistan," he said.
Moreover, fighters flowing across the border from Pakistan account for about 30 to 40 percent of the attacks in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee.
Gates said he hoped for greater cooperation with Pakistan's new government against militant groups that also are escalating attacks within Pakistan, such as the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Saturday that killed more than 50 people.
U.S. officials denied a report yesterday that Pakistani troops and tribesmen had shot down an American drone near the Afghan border.
Gates acknowledged that the United States and Pakistan have fundamental differences in how they define their foe. For example, he said, while Pakistani officials oppose the presence of al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters, they have had long-term relationships with insurgent groups founded by Taliban leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and "they don't, in many respects, see the Taliban as their enemy," he said.
"Frankly, I think one of the keys in terms of expanding our cooperation with the Pakistanis is identifying common threats," he said. "They do not see some of these groups in the same way we do."
Committee Chairman Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking Republican Sen. John W. Warner (Va.) voiced concern over strains in U.S.-Pakistani relations as a result of the U.S. cross-border strikes. They noted that about 80 percent of the cargo and 40 percent of the fuel for U.S. troops in Afghanistan flow through Pakistan.
Concerned that those supply lines could be cut off, the Pentagon began this month testing alternative routes for getting materials into landlocked Afghanistan, Cartwright said.
Pressed by lawmakers to make Afghanistan a higher priority, Gates said that based on current demands in Iraq, "we do not have the forces to send three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan at this point" without extending war-zone tours for troops.
Moreover, Gates said, dispatching large numbers of American and other Western troops may not be the best answer to rising violence in Afghanistan, which "has never been hospitable to foreigners." An alternative would be to make expanding Afghan forces a higher priority, he said. The United States is supporting a plan to double the size of the Afghan army from about 60,000 to 120,000, with 12,000 more soldiers in training, over the next five years.
The size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan has increased from fewer than 21,000 troops two years ago to more than 31,000 today, but senior commanders there say their efforts remain hampered by a shortage of adequate ground forces, helicopters and other equipment.
Gates said he expected that as U.S. force levels increase, the contingent of 30,000 troops from NATO allies and other countries is unlikely to grow much.