ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pentagon Chief Robert Gates, in his push for a coordinated assault against the Taliban in Afghanistan this spring, is enlisting Pakistan's help and vowing better military coordination along the troubled border between the two countries.
After four days of entreaties to NATO allies, seeking more military and economic development resources for the Afghanistan war, Gates tacked 30 hours of travel onto his trip to meet in Islamabad with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The lengthy detour underscored how critical this time is in the Afghan conflict, which has dragged on for five years, and has seen escalating violence and a persistent problem with Taliban militants crossing over the porous border from Pakistan.
"I think there's a mutual interest in improving our effectiveness and improving our coordination, and the understanding that we have a real opportunity this spring," Gates said after his hourlong meeting with Musharraf.
Pakistan, a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has denied the charges that the Taliban are staging attacks from inside Pakistan and says it has deployed some 80,000 troops along its rugged border with Afghanistan to track down militants.
Gates said the meeting, held at one of Musharraf's homes, was not aimed at securing assurances of action from the Pakistanis, who have been criticized for failing to adequately secure their border. Musharraf, he added, has been meeting with his military commanders to see how they can improve their operations along the border.
Gates also said that U.S. forces who have been launching artillery rounds over the border into Pakistan to target the Taliban have been coordinating with the Pakistanis. He said he did not know if Musharraf approved the cross-border fire, but doubted that he would do so personally.
It was his first trip to Pakistan since taking over as defense secretary in December. And, in a short briefing with reporters, he reiterated other U.S. officials' remarks that the United States neglected Afghanistan for 20 years.
"After the Soviets left, the United States made a mistake: we neglected Afghanistan and extremism took control of that country," said Gates. "The United States paid a price for that on Sept. 11 of 2001. We won't make that mistake again. We are here for the long haul."
Gates also said he hopes the U.S. can play a constructive role in improving the often rocky relationship between the Afghans and the Pakistan government.
"We all have a mutual interest in stabilizing the border, and Afghanistan becoming a stable and prosperous democracy."
Musharraf acknowledged recently that his outgunned Pakistani frontier guards have allowed insurgents to cross the border and said the army soon would fence parts of the border to stem the problem.
The stop in Islamabad capped four days of meetings with other NATO defense ministers as he prodded them — including some more reluctant allies — to meet their commitments to provide greater more troops, weapons, and money for economic development in Afghanistan. He also pressed the allies to drop restrictions on their forces that make it difficult for commanders to use the troops efficiently.
Before leaving Munich, where he attended a regional security conference, Gates responded Sunday to Russian President Vladimir Putin's assault on U.S. foreign policy.
It was his first speech as Pentagon chief, and his rebuke of the Russian president relied on humor and some pointed jabs.
"As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time . Almost," Gates said. Then, as the audience chuckled, the defense secretary said he has accepted Putin's invitation to visit Russia.
"We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia," said Gates. "One Cold War was quite enough."