Gates Reaches Out to Future Pakistani Military Leaders
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 22, 2010 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took his message of shared challenge and commitment today to Pakistan’s rising military leaders attending the prestigious Pakistan National Defense University.
“The main reason I’m here today is to have a conversation – to hear your thoughts and to answer any questions you may have about us – about our goals and future plans concerning this region,” Gates said in opening his remarks.
Gates noted the far-ranging strategic relationship between the United States and Pakistan, but focused his remarks on the two countries’ military relationship – one he conceded the United States mistakenly cut off in the early 1990s due to short-sighted U.S. legislative and policy decisions.
“Perhaps the greatest consequence of these choices was the severing of military-to-military relations,” he said.
The result, he said, was a “very real and very understandable trust deficit – one that has made it more difficult for us to work together to confront a common threat of extremism.”
The United States is ready to invest “whatever time and energy is takes” to change that, he said, and forge a genuine, lasting partnership with Pakistan.
Rebuilding relationships with this current generation of Pakistani officers will take years rather than months, he said, and require openness, transparency and continuous engagement on both sides.
“You cannot rebuild trust through a speech or rhetoric,” but rather, through actions, Gates told Pakistani print journalists earlier today.
The two militaries have a lot to learn from each other, Gates told the officers. They’re already starting these lessons, through expanded joint training exercises, and operationally, as they cooperatively deal with extremism along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The troop surge in Afghanistan is intended to put more pressure on the Taliban and reverse what Gates conceded is a “deteriorating security situation” there. He acknowledged concern within Pakistan that the increased U.S. presence will lead to more attacks there.
But confronting the terrorist syndicate that threatens the region requires pressuring all the associated groups on both sides of the border.
“We have a regional problem here,” Gates told Pakistani reporters earlier today. “It is going to take a regional level of cooperation to deal with it.”
This reality, he told the military officers, will require Pakistan’s military to do even more in the coming years.
“As uniformed leaders, you will be responsible for preparing the military for the future,” he told the officers, sharing some of the lessons the U.S. military has learned about reshaping and reforming itself to meet new and evolving threats.
Just as the U.S. military transformed to face these new challenges, rather than fight a conventional conflict, Gates said Pakistan’s will have to change, too, to ensure it has the proper skill sets and equipment to fight along the Afghan border and in the tribal areas.
“As the future leaders of the military, you have a tremendous responsibility – to your fellow troops, and most important, to all your countrymen,” he challenged the officers.
The United States is committed to doing all it can to assist this process through a variety of means, as Pakistan desires, he said throughout his two days of sessions here.
“We are in this car together, but the Pakistanis are in the driver’s seat and have their foot on the accelerator,” he told Pakistani print journalists today. “And that is fine with me.”
One important way to share capabilities is through solid military-to-military ties, Gates said.
These will strengthen the other elements of the two countries’ broad strategic relationship, he said, providing a foundation on which to “renew, reinforce and strengthen the bonds of trust between our people and our nations.”
After presenting his prepared remarks, Gates dismissed the media from the room so he and the Pakistani officers could have an open exchange.
Their questions ran the gamut, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters after the session.
One officer asked Gates to explain his statement earlier this week in New Delhi, where he said India demonstrated “great restraint and statesmanship” following the 2008 Mumbai bombings, but could be hard-pressed not to react more strongly – even violently-- if a similar incident occurred again.
Another asked Gates if the United States would be willing to intervene to relieve long-simmering Indian-Pakistani tensions – something Gates said both countries have expressed they’d rather deal with themselves.
Several of the questions concerned Afghanistan – from Gates’ thoughts about reconciliation with the Taliban, to how to grow and sustain the Afghan national army despite lack of Afghan resources to support the effort.
One of the more provocative participants challenged Gates about the difficulties “the American war” in Afghanistan has put on Pakistan. “The tone of it was, … ‘We are in this mess because of you,’” Morrell said.
Gates “took great exception” to the comment, telling the officer problems created by the Taliban government in Afghanistan, as well as al Qaida and its affiliates, were going to impact Pakistan.
“It was only a matter of time before they were dragged into it as well, because al Qaida had designs on a caliphate” that inevitably included Pakistan, Morrell said. “The notion that you could be immune from them – that grand plan – is not realistic,” he said.
Morrell characterized the session as “very cordial and respectful,” but also “very candid,” with “no-holds-barred questions and answers.”
These, he said, are the kind of engagements Gates seeks out to promote clearer communication and understanding about the United States and its intentions.
“This is all part of his effort to sort of dispel myths, debunk conspiracy theories, puncture rumors and try to be as open and honest as he can be in hopes of trying to get through some of the nonsense,” Gates said. “And I think it’s appreciated.”
Gates was particularly looking forward to his National Defense University visit during his Pakistan visit, Morrell told reporters before leaving Washington.
Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani received military education at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. However, as Gates noted during his NDU address, most of the Pakistani forces he leads have had little or no personal interaction with the U.S. military.