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AP Interview: Pakistan army commander defends deals with militants on his side of border
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) ' American efforts to talk peace with insurgents in Afghanistan mean Washington can no longer expect Pakistan to attack all the militant factions on its side of the border, some of whom Islamabad is also reaching out to, the commander of Pakistan's forces along the frontier told The Associated Press.
In a sign of the bad blood between Washington and Islamabad, Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani also accused the U.S. of seeking to make Pakistan a scapegoat for its failure to beat the insurgency in Afghanistan.
U.S. and NATO officials say Pakistani tolerance of ' or support for ' Afghan factions operating on its soil is hobbling efforts to end the resistance to the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. wants Pakistan to launch an offensive or otherwise disrupt militant groups in North Waziristan, the stronghold for multiple insurgent networks on the border.
"Why do they to raise their fingers toward Pakistan? It is shifting the blame to others," Rabbani said in his offices in a highly secure section of the main northwestern city of Peshawar. "Is Afghanistan free of Taliban? It has hundreds of thousands of them."
Rabbani was speaking a day after militants in North Waziristan beheaded 13 Pakistani soldiers, including four that it captured when Pakistani troops raided a militant hideout.
The killings highlighted the dilemma facing the military in dealing with an area used by both the country's fiercest enemies, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida, and Afghan and Pakistani militants who are battling U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan but who the army believes don't pose a direct threat to Islamabad.
One powerful faction in North Waziristan is led by a commander called Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who is believed to have signed a nonaggression pact with the government but still funnels fighters into Afghanistan. Rabbani defended the government's dealings with Bahadur, saying "at the moment he seems to be trying to keep himself out of the trouble."
Washington has urged Pakistan to attack all the militants along the border, which it believes are equally dangerous.
Rabbani said U.S. and NATO were in contact with insurgents in Afghanistan to try and "co-opt them into the peace process."
"Similar things are true on this side of the border as well," he said. "It it forbidden for us to do the same?"
The Pakistani army has launched anti-militant operations in six of the seven tribal regions along the Afghan border since 2004, retaking parts of the mountainous area and losing hundreds of soldiers in bloody fighting. But just as U.S.-led forces have experienced across the border, the force has had trouble holding retaken territory and attacks continue to roil the region.
Privately, some U.S. officials agree with Pakistan's stated reason that its lacks the soldiers to move into North Waziristan and defeat the some 8,000 militants there. But others in Congress and the army accuse the force of seeking to keep the insurgents as proxies to influence events in Afghanistan, especially the so-called Haqqani network, whose leadership is said to be based in North Waziristan.
Repeating assurances by other top army officers, Rabbani said several times that the army would launch operations in North Waziristan. But he didn't say when this would happen, nor whether it would target all factions there.
"Something has to be done, and it's in the offing," said Rabbani, who commands over 150,000 soldiers and paramilitary forces in the rugged northwest. "North Waziristan is the only region we haven't cleared. It should be done as early as possible."
U.S. officials have been hoping to see the army move into North Waziristan since 2010, but now believe it is unlikely before 2014, when Washington is committed to bringing most of its soldiers home.
The unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year badly hurt the relationship between the two countries. U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November effectively ended cooperation between the two forces. Islamabad ordered the closure of U.S. and NATO supply lines.
Washington wants to rebuild ties with the country, but has had little success so far.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.