Mullen: Eliminating Pakistani safe havens is key

By Ernesto Londono and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:43 PM

KABUL - The top U.S. military officer said Friday that "the enemy is losing" in Afghanistan, but conceded that the Taliban will continue to have a sanctuary in Pakistan until that nation decides to fully tackle Islamist insurgents on its soil.

"The enemy is being pushed out of population centers, is being denied sanctuary, is losing leaders by the score," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to Kabul. "His scare tactics are being rejected by citizens."

Mullen and other U.S. officials in the region provided an upbeat assessment of the war effort while echoing President Obama's statements on Thursday on the importance of securing meaningful cooperating from Pakistan in order to build on what the administration calls "fragile" security gains in Afghanistan.

The White House this week completed a review of the state of the war a year after Obama authorized a 30,000-troop surge.

Mullen said "hard won security gains," could erode if they are not cemented by "more important gains" in governance and rule of law.

"They will be lost if good governance and responsible civic responsibility is not assumed by the Afghan government with the same alacrity and the same courage as that shown by troops on the ground," the admiral said.

Meanwhile, NATO on Friday announced the death of two service members in attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan, adding to the toll of what has been by far the deadliest year for foreign troops since the war began in 2002.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are frustrated by Pakistan's failure to attack militants from the so-called Haqqani network who have sought refuge in a religious school in the dangerous tribal areas.

Mullen said he believes Pakistan's civilian and military leaders "understand the threat posed to them by the existence" of safe havens that have for years served as operating bases for the leadership of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Mullen said the Pakistanis have taken some meaningful steps, including adopting counterinsurgency tactics that stress keeping the population safe as a means to marginalize extremists. He said Pakistan has also deployed a greater share of its troops to tackle sanctuaries along the western border the country shares with Afghanistan.

Mullen said he has conveyed to Pakistani leaders the United States' sense of urgency on eliminating sanctuaries. He added that a relationship that has for years been strained by duplicity is increasingly anchored in trust.

"But trust takes time to form and that is not made any easier by the frenetic pace of war," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, U.S. ambassador Cameron Munter said Pakistani military officials have assured the United States that they will crack down on the militant-riddled border area of North Waziristan.

"It's not a question of if they will do so, it is a question of when they will do so. And they will do so at their own pace," Munter said. "This is something that we are pleased to see, because we know that ultimately the armed forces of Pakistan must gain control over this area, which is an important sanctuary."

Pakistan has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. pleas to launch a ground operation in North Waziristan, the base of an alphabet soup of militant organizations that includes al-Qaeda and Afghan insurgents such as the Haqqani network.

The Pakistani military says its troops are already overstretched battling militants in other parts of the lawless borderlands. But U.S. officials privately complain that the Pakistani forces are overly focused on the eastern border with arch-enemy India, and say the military continues to support some North Waziristan-based insurgents as proxies for influence in Afghanistan.

Munter, however, insisted that U.S. officials accept Pakistan's arguments about its troop limitations and its determination to combat Islamist insurgents.

"I think there is, yes, a great amount of capacity being used in holding the ground that the Pakistani army has won at great cost... and in that sense I think it would be incorrect to define the question about North Waziristan as a question simply of will rather than capacity. I think it's wrong," Munter said.

"Even if this sounds like a contradiction, it's not. We would like them to move tomorrow. But we understand they're telling us honestly about the capacity of the military and when they are able, we are convinced they will move in."

In a sign of U.S. impatience over havens in Pakistan, the CIA's drone campaign appeared to expand its reach over the past day, striking four times in a region of Pakistan's borderlands that the U.S. missiles have previously targeted just once. The attacks in the Khyber agency of the semi-autonomous tribal areas killed at least 15 militants, a Pakistani official said.

The covert drone program, which Pakistan tacitly approves, has dramatically escalated this year. Nearly all the 112 missiles reportedly fired have been aimed at North Waziristan.

Khyber is home to a Taliban faction named Lashkar-e-Islam, as well as militants who have been squeezed out of South Waziristan and other areas where the Pakistani army has launched recent offensives. It is also a primary passing point for NATO supply convoys heading to Afghanistan.

Brulliard reported from Islamabad.

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