Jan 21, 2010

‘Our commitment to Pakistan’

Robert M Gates

Nearly 25 years ago, in 1986, I arrived in Islamabad for my first visit to Pakistan to meet with this country’s military leaders and see firsthand the training of the Afghan resistance along the border. At the time, our two countries were working together in unprecedented ways to combat a common foe. As part of this effort, our militaries went to school together; our intelligence services shared insights; and our leaders consulted each other on strategic issues. The long-standing friendship was based on a great sense of mutual commitment, purpose, and benefit.

I was still in government in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union left the region and the US largely abandoned Afghanistan and cut off defense ties with Pakistan – a grave mistake driven by some well-intentioned but short-sighted US legislative and policy decisions.

Thankfully, times have changed. Even so, much is still made in the media of a "trust deficit" between our nations. As I meet with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders during my visit, I will emphasize that the United States wishes to relinquish the grievances of the past – grievances held by both sides – and instead focus on the promise of the future. I will repeat President Obama’s message that the United States is fully committed to a stable, long-term, strategic partnership with a democratic Pakistan – an enduring relationship based on shared interests and mutual respect that will continue to expand and deepen in the future on many levels, from security cooperation to economic development.

Today, Pakistan and the United States are allied against a common threat. As the people of Pakistan are all too aware, violent extremists attack innocent civilians, government and religious institutions, and security forces – all in an effort to undermine this country and its culture. The tremendous sacrifice of so many Pakistani troops – nearly 2,000 in the last three years – speaks to both their courage and their commitment to protect their fellow citizens. It also speaks to the magnitude of the security challenges this country faces – and need to for our two nations to muster the resolve to eliminate lawless regions and bring this conflict to an end.

The United States and the rest of the international community understand the gravity of the situation and applaud Pakistan’s drive to restore peace to all parts of the nation. To this end, the United States has increased efforts to help the Pakistani military develop the capabilities – and acquire the equipment – necessary to deal with a threat of this size and complexity. This effort includes revitalizing our military exchanges, education, and training programs. With all of our military-to-military relations, the guiding principle for the United States is doing whatever we can to help Pakistan protect its own sovereignty and destroy those who promote the use of terror in this country and plan attacks abroad. At the same time, the US recognizes that military aid alone will not help Pakistan solve the problem of violent extremism, and has, accordingly, expanded civilian assistance to invest in the potential of the Pakistani people.

I know there is concern that an increased US presence in Afghanistan will lead to more attacks in Pakistan. It is important to remember that the Pakistani Taliban operates in collusion with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, so it is impossible to separate these groups. If history is any indication, safe havens for either Taliban, on either side of the border, will in the long-run lead to more lethal and more brazen attacks in both nations – attacks of the kind that have already exacted a terrible civilian toll. Maintaining a distinction between some violent extremist groups and others is counterproductive: 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 for good – to destroy those who promote the use of terror here and abroad.

Even as our countries deal with the great challenge along the border, the United States recognizes Pakistan’s important regional and global leadership role – especially on matters like combating piracy and illicit narcotics trafficking, two areas where Pakistan has already made valuable contributions. One of the chief reasons for my visit is to develop a broader strategic dialogue – on the link between Afghanistan’s stability and Pakistan’s; stability in the broader region; the threat of extremism in Asia; efforts to reduce illicit drugs and their damaging global impact; and the importance of maritime security and cooperation. In all of this, Pakistan can play a central part in maintaining good relations among all countries in Asia – a precondition for security in this part of the world.

My visit comes at a critical time for the region. Many challenges remain, but I believe there is reason for hope and optimism. With common goals and collaboration on a range of issues, a new generation of Pakistanis and Americans is learning what it means to be long-term allies, partners, and friends – united in an effort to renew and strengthen the bonds of trust between our nations.

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