The top US military officer held talks in Pakistan yesterday on the new war strategy for Afghanistan, which Washington says hinges on Pakistan’s own battle against Islamist extremists.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began talks with Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani yesterday morning, a senior official said.
Mullen arrived from Kabul late on Tuesday and has already met General Tariq Majid, ceremonial head of the armed forces, during which US President Barack Obama’s plan for turning around the Afghan war topped the agenda.
He discussed the “evolving regional security situation with particular focus on revised US strategy for Afghanistan and the region, especially its impact and short and long term implications for Pakistan,” a military statement said. “Aspects of bilateral military cooperation also came under discussion.”
Obama is deploying an extra 30,000 troops to try and turn the tide in the eight-year war against a Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, while he has also set a July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing US forces.
The plan has been criticized in Pakistan, as officials and analysts fear a troop surge in Afghanistan will send militants into Pakistan, while a drawdown date will embolden Islamist insurgents on both sides of the border.
Islamabad is also under increasing Western pressure to dismantle Taliban strongholds in its lawless northwest tribal area and stop militants slipping over the border to attack NATO and US troops.
Visiting Afghanistan earlier this week, Mullen expressed concern about “growing” collusion between Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda and other extremist groups sheltering in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Mullen’s visit coincided with a suicide car bomb in a busy market in the town of Dera Ghazi Khan in central Pakistan on Tuesday that killed at least 27 people.
Meanwhile, Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships have pounded suspected Taliban hideouts in the northwest tribal belt, killing at least 43 militants, officials said yesterday.
The armed forces targeted Orakzai and Kurram districts, strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked fighters and part of a lawless tribal region where the military is trying to dismantle insurgent sanctuaries.
“At least 18 militants were killed when helicopters pounded Toorikhel town of Orakzai when militants were holding an important meeting Tuesday,” paramilitary spokesman Major Fazlur Rehman said.
The meeting, chaired by local Taliban commander Qari Ismail, was held to arrange a reconciliation between two feuding groups of militants, he said. It was not immediately clear if Ismail was among the dead.
Local official Riaz Khan confirmed the toll, and said four more people were killed in air strikes in Orkazai’s Sultanzai town. Seven militant hideouts and five vehicles were also destroyed, he said.
The military also mounted a ground and air operation in Dagar town of Kurram region on Tuesday, killing 21 militants, Rehman said, adding that the operations continued yesterday.