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Gates, in unannounced trip, urges Pakistan to expand crackdown against Taliban

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; A10

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made an unannounced trip here Thursday to urge Pakistan to expand its crackdown against the Taliban as well as to counter skepticism about the Obama administration's new war strategy for Afghanistan.

Soon after the Pentagon chief landed, however, the Pakistani military declared it was not yet prepared to send more troops into the rebellious tribal area of North Waziristan, home to a leading Taliban faction and a suspected hideout for al-Qaeda commanders.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, said it would take at least "six months to a year" to mount an army offensive in North Waziristan. He said the military was preoccupied with counterinsurgency operations launched last year in neighboring South Waziristan and the Swat Valley, two other Taliban strongholds.

"At present, we are not in a position to get overstretched," Abbas told reporters traveling with Gates.

Gates, on his first trip to Pakistan in three years, praised Islamabad for launching a ground offensive in South Waziristan in October and for deploying 140,000 troops along the Afghan border. But he said Pakistan needed to crack down equally against all factions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups.

"The reality [is] that you can't ignore one part of this cancer and pretend that it won't have some impact closer to home," Gates said. Pakistan has been reluctant to act against fighters who cross into Afghanistan and India but don't cause trouble domestically. One faction that has largely avoided the crackdown is the Haqqani network, a North Waziristan-based militia that regularly targets U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Asked why the Pakistani military has not clamped down on the Haqqanis, Abbas noted that the network, led by Pashtun warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, has an equally large presence in Afghanistan. "Why hasn't the U.S. been able to detect Haqqani and target him there?" he said.

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