Pakistan will have to sort out its damaged relationship with the United States before the Pentagon will be able to restore "very significant" cuts in its military training there, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, who just returned from meetings with Pakistani leaders, told reporters Islamabad remains committed to working with the U.S. but that it will take time to rebuild ties in the wake of the secret U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden deep within Pakistan's borders.
Tensions over the bin Laden raid frayed the already fragile relationship between Washington and Islamabad, including demands by Pakistan that the U.S. reduce its military presence in the country. The stand-off has triggered a series of high-level meetings to try to mend fences.
Mullen, who has focused on building ties with Pakistan during his four years on the job, was blunt in agreeing that "we're going through a pretty tough time right now and that's going to continue."
Over the past several years, the U.S. has steadily increased funding for its program to train members of Pakistan's Army and paramilitary Frontier Corps, pouring millions of dollars into efforts to boost counterinsurgency efforts against militants in safe havens along the Afghanistan border.
The program grew from a handful of trainers to well more than 100, out of the more than 270 military members that were based in Pakistan in recent months. After the bin Laden raid, however, the U.S. bowed to demands that many of the trainers leave.
Pakistani military leaders were embarrassed by the fact that U.S. special operations forces were able to helicopter in, storm bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, kill the terror leader, collect computers and other evidence and leave _ all without the knowledge of Pakistan's military.
The episode, Mullen said, triggered a great deal of introspection.
"They're going to have to finish that before we get back to a point where we are doing any kind of significant training with them," he said. And for right now, he said, "it's a very significant cutback in trainers."
A key point of debate is Pakistan's inability or unwillingness to go after militants in North Waziristan, an al-Qaida stronghold and a base for the Haqqani network, a deadly faction of the Afghan Taliban.
Reports that the Pakistan military may be preparing a move in North Waziristan were dismissed as untrue by U.S. military leaders earlier this week. And while Mullen said success in the Afghan war depends in part on routing out insurgents in North Waziristan, he acknowledged that Pakistan had made no specific pledge to do that in the near future.
"We recognize that North Waziristan and the Haqqani network are central to a long-term solution with respect to instability and terrorism in that area," he told military reporters during a breakfast meeting.
Asked about the Haqqani network, Mullen said that while part of the solution is the "take them off the battlefield," he has not ruled out reconciliation with parts of the group. Some, he said, will not be able to be integrated into Afghan society while others may be open to it.
Mullen said that despite the U.S.-Islamabad tensions, Pakistan troops have continued to work with U.S. forces in the border regions of eastern Afghanistan. And he touted that as a positive sign amid the turmoil.
Mullen, who is wrapping up four years as chairman, took a long view of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which had eroded during the 1990s and has been slow to rebuild. He said his investment in the issue paid off during the recent dustup because it "would have been almost impossible" to pick up the phone and call Islamabad leaders in the middle of the crisis if that new foundation had not been developed.
"From my perspective, this is not the time to condemn each other. It's time to recognize the situation we're in and try to figure out a way to work with each other," said Mullen. "The worst thing we could do is cut them off. ... We are not living in a world where we can afford to be not engaged in a place like this."