Pakistan snubs US and pledges no new rebel offensives for a year

THE Pakistani army yesterday said it would be unable to launch any new offensives against militants for up to a year, to give it time to stabilise existing gains.

The announcement came as United States defence secretary Robert Gates visited the country, and will disappoint the Obama administration.

The White House has been pushing Pakistan to expand its operations to target militants staging cross-border attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan.

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Washington believes that such action is critical to success in Afghanistan, as it prepares to send an additional 30,000 troops to the country this year.

But the comments by army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas clearly indicate that Pakistan will not be pressured in the short term to expand its fight beyond militants waging war against the Pakistani state.

"We are not talking years," said Mr Abbas, adding that "six months to a year" would be needed before Pakistan could stabilise existing gains and expand operations.

The army launched a major ground offensive against the Pakistani Taleban's main stronghold near the Afghan border in mid-October, triggering a wave of retaliatory violence.

The Americans want Pakistan to take on militants who use its border region as a safe home base for attacks on US forces in Afghanistan, but Mr Gates said he would not directly press his hosts.

He said Pakistan should be given room to expand its military offensive against militants on its own terms and timetable.

Referring to pressure in Washington to lean harder on Pakistan, Mr Gates sounded sanguine. "As I try to remind Congress, and, frankly, some of the folks in the administration, it's the Pakistanis who have their foot on the accelerator, not us," he said at the start of his two-day visit to the country.

Suspicion of US motives runs high in Pakistan, and many Pakistanis bristle at the notion that Washington could dictate the country's priorities, even with the promise of an unprecedented $1.5 billion in annual aid.

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Mr Gates said his talks with Pakistan's leaders were intended to explain American war strategy in Afghanistan and stress that the US was "in this for the long haul".

But he cautioned Pakistan against trying to distinguish between the different militant groups in an essay published yesterday in the News, an English-language Pakistani newspaper.

"It is important to remember that the Pakistani Taleban operates in collusion with both the Taleban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, so it is impossible to separate these groups," he wrote.

"Only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good."