Gates To Reassure Pakistan About U.S. Support

Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Pakistan Thursday for an unannounced visit. It's his first trip to the country in three years, and his first as a member of the Obama administration. Gates will reassure Pakistan that the U.S. will not repeat past mistakes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Pakistan this morning on an unannounced visit, it was his first visit as part of the Obama administration, which is not to say he's new to the country. Gates has a long history in Pakistan, and he says he's going to use that experience to drive home this message: The U.S. will not repeat past mistakes. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is in Islamabad, traveling with the defense secretary. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And those past mistakes include quite prominently leaving Pakistan, as Pakistan sees it, in the lurch.

KELLY: That's exactly right. There is a sense that after the war with the Soviets and Afghanistan back in the '80s - a war in which the U.S., through the CIA, was, of course, heavily involved - that when the ended, the U.S. just walked away, got what it wanted, walked away and abandoned the whole region.

And today, there is a real fear among Pakistanis that that kind of behavior will be repeated, and it continues to hamper current U.S.-Pakistan cooperation, particularly in this key area of counterterrorism and trying to fight al-Qaida. So what Secretary Gates says is the whole point of this visit is to offer his personal promise, saying the U.S. is not going to walk away this time.

MONTAGNE: Well, okay, I just mentioned Gates long history in the region. Part of that history was that he was with the CIA at the point when this happened, when those mistakes were made.

KELLY: That's true. That's true. That is part of his history, and I think the plan is he's going to try to work that to his advantage, actually, and, you know, by saying, look. I know how badly this worked out the last time around. I was there. I saw it firsthand. Let's not go down that road again.

And he does have, for better or worse, long relationships with a lot of the players here. Interestingly, he's made a number of gestures on this trip to try to show respect to his Pakistani hosts. He has brought his wife, Becky, along on this trip, something he rarely does on overseas travel. And he's also scheduled a private session with rising military officers here. He says he wants to have a candid back and forth, really listen to them, get to know them, hear the views of the up-and-coming military leaders that the U.S. really hasn't had contact with for a couple of decades now.

MONTAGNE: You know, Mary Louise, much of the U.S. policy that gets Pakistanis mad has to do with the Pentagon - which, of course, Gates heads - the drone attacks in particular, also the buildup of troops in Afghanistan. What kind of reception is he likely to get there?

KELLY: Well, it's a good question. I mean, anti-Americanism is rampant here in Pakistan. The drone strikes, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, both touch points. The point with the U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a lot of Pakistanis worry that that could lead to more attacks here in Pakistan, because it may -if you have more U.S. troops on one side of the border, it may push extremists across onto the Pakistani side.

Secretary Gates is certainly aware of that. He's actually written about it in a piece he wrote that appears today in one of Pakistan's big papers, big newspapers, writing the Pakistani Taliban works with the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, all of these extremist groups. And his point is, if you have safe havens on one side of the border, that's going to lead to more attacks everywhere.

And I should say, that may be a bit of a tough sell here in Pakistan, because Pakistanis don't tend to lump all of these different extremist groups together. They have a different way of seeing it, not quite the same way as Secretary Gates is arguing for it to be viewed.

MONTAGNE: And finally, Mary Louise, I understand security in Islamabad is usually tight.

KELLY: There is extraordinary security for this visit, Renee. We were not allowed to report that Gates was coming here at all until he actually landed. We're being asked still not to report any specific events, any specific locations where he's going to be. And it was interesting, just on the short trip from the airport to our first stop here, we have already been through multiple I.D. checks, multiple security barriers. They're being very, very careful on this visit.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, speaking to us from Islamabad, where she's traveling with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Thank you very much.

KELLY: Thank you, Renee.

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