By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 8, 2009 - Of all the challenges and potential problems the United States faces, Pakistan tops Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' priority list, he said yesterday. "[Pakistan faces] a lot of problems right now," he said during an interview on the "Charlie Rose Show" on PBS. "I think ... they have always thought of India as the existential threat to Pakistan, [but] I think they are beginning to understand that the extremists in the ungoverned spaces in their west have become an existential threat."
Going forward in the Middle East, the United States will be looking for ways to strengthen its partnership with Pakistan, Gates said, such as helping the country with some of its economic problems. At the same time, he added, Pakistan will be encouraged to take action in some of its ungoverned spaces in the western part of the country, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have taken sanctuary.
The situation in western Pakistan was caused, in part, by the withdrawal of Pakistani soldiers, Gates said.
"Now, the Pakistanis are back in the fight," he added. "They have been an important source of support for us. Almost all of our supplies, about 80 percent of our dry cargo, moves through Pakistan to Afghanistan, and they have helped provide protection for the convoys."
Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has cooperated or worked with many of the extremist groups operating in the western part of the country as a method of keeping a handle on them, Gates said, but now the country's new leadership has a decision to make.
"They really have to make up their minds now that ... those groups are a threat, not a hedge," he said. "And they really have to get in the fight against [those groups] as well."
The Pakistani government also understands that if U.S. citizens are attacked, and there's reliable information it originated in Pakistan, the United States will respond, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also was on the program, said.
"It's a conversation I've had many times -- not just with military leadership, but also with political leadership -- that any president of the United States would respond to an attack on U.S. citizens," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said. "They understand that very clearly, and they don't disagree with that.
"I think you're at the heart of dealing with the most difficult part of the problems we have there, where we have this safe haven in a sovereign country that is threatening [and] plotting against Americans and other Western countries, and it must be eliminated," Mullen added. "Ideally, that would come through the pressure that the Pakistanis bring to eliminate that threat."
And Pakistan plays an important role in success or failure in Afghanistan, Gates said.
"I think one of the challenges that faces the new administration is, in fact, to decide what our objectives are in Afghanistan, and whether some of our objectives may reach too far into the future in terms of being idealistic," Gates said. "I think everybody agrees that's got to be our highest priority in Afghanistan: to keep it from becoming a safe haven again.
"But that's easier said than done, and it can't just be a military solution," he added. "We also have to help them try and build a government and try and develop their society ... and to improve their governance."
One of his biggest concerns in Afghanistan, Gates said, is how the Afghan people view the American military. If too many U.S. forces are in the country, the United States could come to be seen as "in it for ourselves, and not as their ally, and they can turn against us," Gates said.
"As long as the Afghan people see us as ... in this fight for them as well as for ourselves, then I think we'll be OK," he added. "So I think the solution for us when all is said and done is we must accelerate the growth of the Afghan army and get the Afghan army in the lead where we are helping them and partnering with them."
Though it may sound similar to the situation in Iraq, Gates warned about drawing analogies between the two countries. They are economically worlds apart, he noted, with the Iraqi government having revenues close to $70 billion and Afghanistan closer to $700 million.
"Afghanistan is a desperately poor country, and when you talk about reconstruction in Afghanistan, it's really a euphemism for construction," Gates said. "We're building some of the first paved roads in the history of Afghanistan. So the challenges, I think, in Afghanistan are more complex than they were in Iraq."
Mullen agreed that success in Afghanistan must involve a multi-layered diplomatic solution.
While giving credit to the NATO allies who have provided capabilities in Afghanistan, he added that the requirements in Afghanistan are broad and varied.
"We need police trainers, and there are plenty of countries in Europe that do that exceptionally well. We need individuals not in the military who could take care of training ministries at all levels," he said. "We need development experts, whether it's in agriculture or other industries that would apply in that ... country.
"So we need a lot of help across a full spectrum of capabilities, not just the military side," he added.
While Mullen wouldn't say the United States is winning the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said he thinks it's winnable, though it will mean having U.S. troops on the ground. He also expects the violence -- and, as a result, casualties -- to rise.
"We don't do this without understanding those risks as well," Mullen said. "The one thing I kind of focus on when I think about this is we're not there to occupy Afghanistan. We're not there to run Afghanistan. We're there ... to train and develop and let the Afghan security forces, particularly the army, take the lead."