ISLAMABAD — Obama administration efforts to pacify Afghanistan suffered a major setback Thursday with the announcement in Pakistan that Pakistan's military plans no new assault this year on Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border.
U.S. strategy in Afghanistan depends on shutting off Taliban havens in Pakistan, especially in the North Waziristan area, where leaders of the Haqqani network, which is considered the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan, shelter.
Pakistan's chief military spokesman, Maj. Athar Abbas, said that any new offensive against the Taliban would have to wait until next year.
"We are not going to conduct any major new operations against the militants over the next 12 months," Abbas told the BBC. "The Pakistan army is overstretched, and it is not in a position to open any new fronts."
Abbas later revised his remarks, telling reporters who were traveling with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that operations would have to wait "six months to a year." The military didn't respond to a request from McClatchy for clarification.
Abbas made his remarks just as Gates arrived in Pakistan for talks that were widely expected to be aimed at pressing Pakistan to expand its military operations against the Taliban and al Qaida. Last year, the U.S. pressured Pakistan into sending troops into the country's Swat valley, which Pakistani Taliban had overrun, and then into South Waziristan, again against Pakistani Taliban.
The military, however, hasn't moved against Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network, which Pakistan usually denies operate from its soil. Critics have accused Pakistan's army of remaining close to some insurgent groups that it had backed in the past, including the Haqqani network, a charge that the military vehemently denies.
Pakistan's wild tribal region, which includes North and South Waziristan, is a magnet for extremists from around the world.
In recent weeks, Gates and U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones have suggested that al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is hiding in North Waziristan. Last month, a suicide bomber set off from the tribal area to detonate himself at a CIA outpost just across the border in Khost, Afghanistan. The explosion killed seven CIA employees and a Jordanian who was working with them.
Pakistani officials privately say that Washington is exaggerating the importance of the Haqqani network and highlighting bin Laden's likely presence in Pakistan as a way of putting pressure on the country.
Gates met with Pakistan's army chief and civilian president Thursday and played down any rift with Islamabad.
"We have to do this in a way that is comfortable for them, and at a pace that they can accommodate and is tolerable for them," Gates said. "Frankly, I'm comfortable doing that. I think having them set that pace as to what they think the political situation will bear is almost certainly the right thing to do."
Pakistani public opinion is deeply anti-American, while the civilian government has been shown repeatedly not to be in control of the military.
Pakistan's military has argued that it must first tackle the extremist groups that are threatening the country's government before taking on militants who fight only in Afghanistan. U.S. officials argue that the extremist groups that are operating along the Pakistani-Afghan border are inextricably linked.
"It is important to remember that the Pakistani Taliban operates in collusion with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaida, so it is impossible to separate these groups," Gates wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday in The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper.
(Shah is a special correspondent.)
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