ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT– After meeting with top military and intelligence officials yesterday in Islamabad, Pakistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasized the importance of U.S.-Pakistan relations in the fight against terrorism.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen met with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of the Army Staff, and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha director-general of Pakistan’s interservice intelligence agency, and told reporters traveling with him that he makes it a point to meet with his Pakistani counterpart whenever possible.

“Just about any time I am in the [area of operations], I’ll stop by to see him,” Mullen said during an interview today on the flight back to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Yesterday’s meeting marked Mullen’s seventh visit to Pakistan since he took office in October 2007.

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is critical, Mullen said. Pakistan borders Afghanistan, and Taliban extremists have been using safe havens in remote areas of the country. Officials believe extremists from the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba used the safe havens to finance, plan and train for the November terror attack against Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

The attacks targeted foreigners, but most of the almost 200 people killed were Indian. After the attack, the new Pakistani government moved against Lashkar-e-Taiba, arresting many members, shutting down “charities” that supported the group and shuttering the group’s camps.

“It was a good, positive meeting, and it continues our relationship,” Mullen said. “I’m not going to get into specifics of what we discussed, but I am encouraged.”

Before the attack in Mumbai, the Pakistani government began operations in Baijur on the border with Afghanistan. Mullen and NATO International Security Assistance Force officials said that operation was extremely helpful inside Afghanistan. The Pakistani army operation, combined with coalition and Afghan military efforts, caused a noticeable drop in Taliban fighters and members of other terror groups trying to cross the border, he added.

Mullen said the NATO and Pakistani operations are coordinated, but aren’t synchronized.

The small team of extremists that attacked Mumbai represented a tactical operation that had strategic effects, Mullen said, placing that progress in jeopardy. Indian and Pakistani leaders had been working to lessen tensions between the two countries in a territorial dispute over the state of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have gone to war many times since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Today, both countries possess nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

The near-term danger is that war might erupt, officials said. A second-order effect is that the dispute may cause Pakistan to concentrate on its border with Kashmir and lessen its commitment to solving the problem of safe havens in the west.

The long-term answer, Mullen told reporters, is a regional strategy that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and other Central Asian nations. The nations must improve relations among one another so attacks like the one in Mumbai don’t escalate closer to conflict, he said.

Military-to-military contacts can help lessen tensions among the countries of the region and put in place a structure for working out problems, the chairman said.

Mullen is en route home from a week-long trip that also took him to Germany, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to conducting military business, he brought along a celebrity-laden USO tour to entertain deployed troops.

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