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To Gates, Taliban Is Both `Cancer,' Part of Afghan `Political Fabric'

On his first trip here in three years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a hard time making up his mind about the Taliban.

world Updated: Jan 23, 2010 17:46 IST

On his first trip here in three years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a hard time making up his mind about the Taliban.

During a series of speeches and interviews, Gates lumped all Taliban factions into the same category, calling them a "scourge" and a "cancer" that colludes with al-Qaida and other extremist groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He urged Pakistani leaders to show no mercy to Taliban militias operating in their territory, even ones the country has long regarded as helpful to its interests.

"You can't say one's good and one's not good," he told Pakistan's Express TV. "They're all insidious, and safe havens for all of them need to be eliminated."

But Gates repeatedly said the Taliban is around to stay. He said cutting a deal with some Taliban commanders is the only way to bring a stable government and lasting peace to Afghanistan.

"Political reconciliation ultimately has to be a part of settling the conflict," he told journalists Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. "The Taliban," he added, "we recognize are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point."

Gates's remarks on the Taliban were met with skepticism during his two-day visit.

Pakistan's chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told reporters traveling with Gates that it was wrong for the Pentagon chief to lump all groups affiliated with the Taliban under the same banner. Some are fighting for different causes, he said, and pose different threats. "The answer can't be in black and white."

Despite U.S. prodding, Abbas also said the Pakistani army had no imminent plans to crack down on Taliban leaders hiding in the border city of Quetta or the tribal area of North Waziristan. He said that the army is embroiled in other counterinsurgency operations and that Pakistani public opinion does not support an expansion of the fight.

Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, said Gates's comments about the Taliban were unlikely to persuade many Pakistani listeners.

"Herein lies this contradiction and duplicity on the part of U.S. policy," he said. "Are they a cancer or part of the political fabric? You can't apply this principle selectively."

He said that after years of cultivating Islamist groups, Pakistan's military leadership had soured on many of them. But he said Pakistan draws a clear distinction between Taliban fighters who cross the border to fight U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and those fueling a rebellion at home.

"We shouldn't simplify things the way Mr. Gates tries to put it. Yes, there are connections between these different groups, but they have different motivations," Gul said. "There is a minimum common denominator that binds them together, and that's anti-Americanism."

Gates said the purpose of his trip was to reassure Pakistan's civilian and military leaders about the United States' long-term commitment to the region after a decade of neglect in the 1990s.

In a speech to Pakistani military officers, he said the United States had "largely abandoned Afghanistan" after the Soviet Union ended its occupation in 1989. He also said severing defense ties with Pakistan in the early 1990s, prompted by Islamabad's nuclear testing program, "was a grave strategic mistake."

Gates also said some of the Taliban warlords the United States is pressing Pakistan to crack down on are the same ones whom the CIA and Pakistani intelligence backed against the Soviets in the 1980s, when Gates was deputy director of the agency.

"Frankly, we all had links with various groups that are now a problem for us today," he said in the Pakistani TV interview. "And some have maintained those links longer than others."