A senior American general in Pakistan said that he expected Islamabad to continue military operations against the country's extremists despite growing indications that Pakistan is shifting resources away from those efforts in the wake of the worst natural disaster in its history.
Brig. Gen. Michael Nagata, the second-highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Pakistan, told reporters that the catastrophic flooding that washed over Pakistan last month wouldn't cause the nation's civilian and military leadership to abandon their struggle against the Islamic militants carrying out attacks inside both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
"Am I still confident the Pakistanis will continue to wage a dedicated, committed struggle against violent extremism in Pakistan? Yes, I am," Nagata told reporters at the Pentagon over a video link from northern Pakistan. "Do I believe they will continue to aggressively pursue violent extremists in this country? Yes, I do."
Nagata declined to comment on whether the flood relief effort would force Islamabad to delay future operations against the nation's militants or reduce the number of troops and military assets dedicated to the counter-terror push, arguing that those were decisions for the Pakistani government to make on its own timetable.
Still, other senior U.S. military officials have expressed concern that Pakistan's flood relief efforts will at least temporarily force Islamabad to devote fewer military resources to the fight against the country's extremists.
During a recent meeting in Pakistan, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the country's top military official, told Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, that the disaster response would "for a time detract" from Pakistan's ability to maintain its counter-terror campaign, the U.S. officer told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Conway and other top American military and intelligence officials believe that the leadership of the Taliban and other extremist groups use safe havens inside Pakistan to direct attacks and funnel money and weaponry to fighters inside Afghanistan. Any Pakistani decision to slow its military push against the militants could as a result fuel new violence inside both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The floods did most of their damage in the Swat Valley, a former insurgent stronghold that the Pakistani military largely reconquered months ago. The U.S. has long been pushing Islamabad to expand its military campaign into North Waziristan, which abuts Afghanistan and is the Taliban's main refuge inside Pakistan. The area was not hit hard by the floods, which means insurgent activity there can continue largely unabated.
The floods in Pakistan have posed other strategic challenges for the Obama administration, which is struggling to figure out how to most effectively aid the victims of the natural disaster without offending Pakistani sensitivities about having a large U.S. military presence inside the country.
The floodwaters, which at one point covered one-fifth of Pakistan, have caused tens of billions of dollars' worth of damage and left more than 20 million Pakistanis in need of food, water or other forms of assistance. Pakistan has said that roughly 1,500 people died in the floods, though the death toll is expected to rise in coming weeks.
Nagata said the U.S. had 15 helicopters currently flying relief missions inside Pakistan, with four more set to arrive early next month. He said the U.S. had delivered more than 1 million pounds of supplies to flood victims and flown more than 6,000 stranded Pakistanis to safety.
All told, roughly 230 American troops are currently operating inside Pakistan as part of the flood relief effort, he said.
Still, Pakistani unease about the U.S. has prevented the American military from playing an even more extensive role in the relief push.
Conway told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. had offered to rush several V-22 Ospreys to Pakistan to help ferry supplies and stranded civilians, only to have Islamabad reject the proposed deployment of the high-tech aircraft, which are capable of taking off like a helicopter and then flying like an airplane.
Nagata declined to say why Pakistan had turned down the U.S. offer, but said the two nations were in constant communication about the flood relief effort.
"There are ongoing discussions between U.S. military and Pakistani military leaders about other aviation assets that might be brought to bear here in Pakistan," he said. "But the course, direction and outcome of those conversations I do not believe are settled yet."