ISLAMABAD - Pakistan ruled out any new offensive against militants Thursday, even as U.S. defence chief Robert Gates began meetings aimed at persuading the country to expand its military campaign to take on Afghanistan's Taliban.
Gates, on his first trip to Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year, is visiting after a period of tense relations marked by a significant degree of distrust on both sides.
Islamabad has mounted big offensives against Pakistani Taliban factions attacking the state, but has resisted U.S. pressure to go after Afghan Taliban in border enclaves who do not strike in Pakistan but cross the border to fight U.S. troops.
Analysts say Pakistan sees the Afghan Taliban as tools to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and as potential allies in Afghanistan if U.S. forces withdraw and, as many Pakistanis fear, leave the country in chaos.
Gates said in a commentary published in a Pakistani newspaper that making a distinction between Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan allies was counterproductive and all factions had to be tackled.
What I hope to talk about with my interlocutors is this notion and the reality that you can't ignore one part of this cancer and pretend that it won't have some impact closer to home, Gates told reporters travelling with him from India.
Pakistan and the United States have been allies for years but ties have been strained by U.S. calls for Pakistan to do more to stop militants crossing from its lawless ethnic Pashtun border lands to fight in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan's military spokesman said there would be no new offensives for the next six months to a year as forces were consolidating gains against the Pakistani Taliban.
We are not in a position to get overstretched, the spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, told reporters.
Abbas also challenged the U.S. assertion that the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other insurgent groups were all linked: The answer can't be in black and white.
Gates, referring to a trust deficit between the United States and Pakistan, said in the newspaper commentary the United States wanted to relinquish old grievances held by both sides.
The United States was committed to a stable, long-term, strategic partnership with a democratic Pakistan, he said.
The United States is sending 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, and Pakistan worries that will lead to a spill-over of fighting across the border.
Gates, who met army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar on the first day of his two-day trip, said he would explain the Afghan strategy.
The main focus of my visit will be to (discuss Afghan strategy) ... and to provide reassurances to the Pakistanis that we are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs far into the future, Gates said.
Gates said he would also raise thorny issues, including manifestations of anti-Americanism that include problems with our visas and harassment of our people.
U.S. officials said last month that Pakistan was delaying hundreds of visas for U.S. officials and contractors, which could hamper U.S. aid programs.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States attributed the delay in part to bureaucratic inefficiency, coupled with an exponential growth in the number of Americans in Pakistan.
The United States is Pakistan's biggest aid donor and has given about $15 billion, including security assistance, since Pakistan signed up to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Despite the aid, many Pakistanis are sceptical of the U.S. war on militancy, believing it is aimed at suppressing Muslims. Many Pakistanis also believe the United States wants to confiscate its nuclear weapons.
Gates said such conspiracy theories were nonsense.
Another source of friction is strikes by missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft on militants in northwest Pakistan.
Gates declined to comment on military operations but said avoiding civilian casualties was central to U.S. strategy and the United States was mindful of Pakistan's sovereignty.
Pakistan is also suspicious of closer ties between the United States and India and is keen to exclude India from any role in plans to stabilise Afghanistan. An international conference of Afghanistan is being held in London at the end of the month.
Gates said in India Wednesday that militants might launch another big attack in India in order to spark a war between India and Pakistan.
(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Bill Tarrant)