The US military commander and regional troubleshooter yesterday held key talks in Pakistan, where Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told them his country was fighting terror for its survival.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived late on Monday for talks on Washington’s sweeping new strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and its allies.
It is the first top-level visit since US President Barack Obama put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against al-Qaeda, unveiling a new strategy nine days ago to commit thousands more troops and billions of dollars to the Afghan war.
“Pakistan is fighting a battle for its own survival,” a statement issued by the presidency quoted Zardari as telling Mullen and Holbrooke during their talks.
“The president said the government would not succumb to any pressure by militants,” it said, despite Zardari sparking controversy in the West with a call for dialogue with those who lay down their arms.
The talks covered regional security issues, the Afghanistan strategy announced by Obama less than two weeks ago and a recent surge in militancy and extremism in the region, the presidency said.
Pakistani officials said the US visitors were scheduled to hold separate talks with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quresh before leaving for India later yesterday.
The visit came as the New York Times again reported that the US intended to step up drone attacks on militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which border Afghanistan, and might extend them deeper inside Pakistan.
The newspaper said “officials” proposed broadening the missile strikes by unmanned aircraft to Pakistan’s southwest province of Baluchistan, which comes under federal government control, unless Pakistan reduces incursions by militants.
Pakistan is deeply opposed to the drone attacks — around 37 of which have killed over 360 people since August last year — saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment in the nuclear-armed nation.
The country has paid dearly for its alliance with the US in its “war on terror.” Militant attacks have killed more than 1,700 people since July 2007.
Pakistan angrily rejects criticism that it does not do more to quash Taliban and al-Qaeda militants holed up on the Afghan border, pointing to the deaths of more than 1,500 troops killed at the hands of Islamist extremists since 2002.
The country’s powerful intelligence services — which have a history of supporting Islamist militants to fight in Indian-controlled Kashmir and in Afghanistan — are under tough US pressure to sever ties with extremists.
On Monday, Gilani chaired high-level Pakistani national security talks and announced in a statement that “a comprehensive and integrated policy ... will be devised to eradicate completely the scourge of terrorism and extremism.”
Cash-strapped Pakistan is keenly awaiting a US aid package that aims to triple economic assistance to US$7.5 billion over five years.
Although the aid bill meets some long-standing requests for military equipment, it requires the White House to certify that Pakistan is fighting terror and that its military and intelligence services do not support extremists.
Pakistan must also close all terror camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and work to prevent cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.