By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 13, 2009 - U.S. officials are keeping a close watch on the current unrest in Pakistan, a country that is key to NATO's efforts in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday. Pakistani lawyers and activists are marching on Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, calling for an independent judicial branch. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show" that American officials are watching the events and the Pakistani government's response closely.
"I've been engaged from the standpoint of understanding what's going on there, and I know that their people are concerned that this could degenerate into a situation that could very possibly generate a crisis, which may cause actions to be taken on the part of the military," Mullen said.
The possibility that the Pakistani military will move is remote right now, but it has taken a hand in politics before, Mullen noted. Former President Pervez Musharraf was a Pakistani army chief who took control of the country.
Mullen has met with his Pakistani counterpart, Army Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, 10 times since the chairman took office in October 2007.
"He is committed to a civilian government; he is committed to the democracy that's there," Mullen told Rose. "And in my view, the last thing in the world he wants to do ... is takeover as President Musharraf did."
The Pakistani military wants to stay out of politics, and Kiyani wants to do what is right, but is in a tough spot, Mullen said. "I'm just hopeful that doesn't turn into another crisis in Pakistan," he said.
At the heart of the security uncertainty in Pakistan is the Taliban, which is using the country's western border to rest and refit for combat against NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban also are exerting control in the Swat Valley -- formerly a tourist spot some 70 miles from Islamabad.
Kiyani "recognizes that he has an extremist threat in Pakistan," Mullen said. "They've lost many, many citizens. He recognizes there's a serious extremist, terrorist threat inside his country and, in fact, his forces have fought very hard this year up in Bajaur, and Mohman, up on the western border."
The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in November further complicated the situation, Mullen said. Terrorists are believed to have planned the attack in India's financial capital from Pakistan, and the small-group attack chilled relations between the two nuclear-armed countries. Following the attack, Kiyani had to turn his attention to his country's border with India.
"He's a chief that's got threats coming from both directions," Mullen said. In the U.S. perspective, diplomacy is needed for relations with India, and more troops are needed for the actions against the Taliban.
Mullen said that many people around the world are worried about ties between Pakistan's intelligence agency and the extremists.
"They have been very attached to many of these extremist organizations, and it's my belief that in the long run, they have got to completely cut ties with those in order to really move in the right direction," the chairman said.
Kiyani has appointed a new intelligence chief with the mission to bring the agency under control. Mullen said he is encouraged, but change will take time.
The Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan are the most difficult problems facing the region, Mullen said.
"We have this safe haven in a sovereign country that is threatening, plotting against Americans and other Western countries, and it must be eliminated," Mullen said. "Ideally, that would come through the pressure that the Pakistanis bring to eliminate that threat."
But if the terrorists manage to launch an attack on the United States or its allies, that would change the equation. America and its allies would be forced to respond.
"What we're working hard on is trying to make sure that doesn't happen," the chairman said.