By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 26, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today praised a pledge by Pakistani officials to renew pressure along its northwestern border, where militants responsible for violence in eastern Afghanistan have taken refuge. Gates praised political and security officials in Pakistani who today vowed to engage tribal leaders along the North West Frontier Province, which military officials believe serves as a launching pad for enemy fighters carrying out attacks in eastern Afghanistan.
"The challenges that we're facing in Afghanistan, ... are in some measure a result of the relaxation of pressure on the Pakistani side of the border," Gates said during a Pentagon news conference. "And my hope is that the prime minister's statement today indicates a willingness to reassert that pressure."
Attacks in NATO's Regional Command East section of Afghanistan rose 40 percent from January to May 2008, an increase that Gates today referred to as a "real concern."
Prior to this recent upswing in violence, the secretary had praised the Khowst province of Regional Command East as a counterinsurgency success. But over past months as Pakistani officials negotiated agreements with groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Gates said, the government relieved its control of the area.
"This is a fairly recent phenomenon of seeing the numbers come across the border," he said. "The pressure was taken off of these people and these groups, and they've therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us."
In a meeting yesterday between Pakistan's security and political leaders in Islamabad, officials agreed to counter extremism by engaging the people of North West Frontier Province into a political process, developing the region's economy and the selective use of military force to combat militants, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan.
"Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used against other countries, especially Afghanistan, and under no circumstances will foreign troops be allowed to operate inside Pakistan," the government said in a statement following the meeting, according to Reuters.
Gates called Pakistan's avowed commitment to deal with the security issue along the border "a heartening sign."
"The fact that the Pakistani government itself has recognized that this is a problem and that these groups' activities are a problem -- for the Pakistani government as well as for those of us in Afghanistan -- I think, is a heartening sign," he said. "I hope we can take advantage of it."
In other Defense Department news, Gates said he is taking "very seriously" a report by the Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- that found improper practices related to an Air Force tanker contract.
The GAO last week recommended the Air Force reopen the bidding process for the service's aerial refueling aircraft contract. The recommendation came after a review of the contract process that in February selected the Northrop-Grumman/EADS/Airbus consortium as the winner of the $35 billion contract. Boeing Co., which had submitted a competing bid, protested the decision.
The secretary met yesterday with representatives of the Pentagon's acquisition, technology and logistics office, the Air Force, and with Defense Department lawyers. He said the quorum is weighing several options, but that no decision on how to proceed has been reached.
"The way forward is one of the issues that we are talking about," Gates said. "And we clearly need to have an approach that has the confidence of the Congress, and so we are looking at several options."