By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 18, 2011 – U.S.financial assistance to Pakistan should continue, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
“I think we have to proceed with some caution. We do have significant interests in Pakistan,” Gates told reporters during a briefing that he and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held today at the Pentagon. “I think my own view would be [that] … we need to continue the assistance that we have provided that benefits the Pakistani people.”
The debate of halting funding to Pakistan began after the May 1 death there of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of American forces inside his compound in Abbottabad, where he is believed to have hidden for six years.
“I have seen no evidence at all that the senior leadership knew [about bin Laden’s presence in the country],” Gates said. “In fact, I've seen some evidence to the contrary. But … we have no evidence yet with respect to anybody else. My supposition is -- somebody knew.”
“We don't know whether it was, you know, … retired people, whether it was low-level. You have pure supposition on our part. It's hard to go to them with an accusation when we have no proof that anybody knew,” he said.
Over the past couple of weeks, the secretary said the Pakistanis “have expressed the view that they are willing to go after [terrorist organizations’ leadership] and that we should not repeat the bin Laden operation because … they will undertake this themselves.”
Gates said the United States “ought to take them up on that” and that it gives the Pakistanis a chance to address the skepticism arising in the United States over continuing assistance to that nation.
“I think we do need to be cognizant of the concerns on the Hill,” the secretary said. “And frankly, I think the Pakistanis need to be as well. But, that said, we do have interests in common and we do need to try and move forward.”
Mullen added that, despite challenges in the region, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is critical.
“It would be a significantly negative outcome if the relationship got broken,” he said, noting that over the years the U.S. military has made a large investment in Pakistan.
“That investment brought us to this position, which I think we need to leverage to sustain the relationship -- not just at my level, or with the military, but, quite frankly, between the two countries,” he said.
Mullen said the Pakistanis want to go after terrorist groups taking safe haven in their country.
“I think they certainly understand the importance of it,” he added.
We all need to make sure, the chairman said, “that they understand very clearly that this priority isn't going to go away and that the safe havens for these leaders have to be eliminated.”
Mullen said his discussions with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of staff of the Pakistan Army since the raid on bin Laden’s compound reaffirms the desire to continue a positive relationship.
But, Mullen said, the raid and its subsequent negative reflection on Pakistan generated internal soul searching within the Pakistan military and that it was a humbling experience for the proud organization.
“We need to give them some time and space to work on some of the internal challenges that came out of this,” he said.