WASHINGTON, May 18, 2009 – Pakistan’s uncertainty about the future outcome of the war in neighboring Afghanistan motivates its intelligence service to keep ties to the Taliban as a strategic hedge, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said. Gates commented on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, known as the ISI, and its support for insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan during an interview that aired yesterday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“Their maintaining contact with these groups, in my view, is a strategic hedge. They’re not sure who’s going to win in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re not sure what’s going to happen along that border area. So to a certain extent, they play both sides.”

On the heels of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that President Barack Obama’s administration released in late March, Gates and other top defense officials have expressed concern over the relationship. But both the defense secretary and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that stronger and enduring U.S. engagement with Pakistan can lead to a distancing between the ISI and insurgent elements.

Underscoring the history of the relationship, Gates said Pakistan and Afghanistan-based insurgent groups established contact more than two decades ago when U.S.-backed fighters clashed with Soviet forces. But he emphasized that present-day insurgents threaten Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.

“What we need to do is try and help the Pakistanis understand these groups are now an existential threat to them, and that we will be there as a steadfast ally for Pakistan, that they can count on us, and that they don’t need that hedge,” Gates said in a March 29 interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Mullen, who has previously emphasized the need for the ISI to change its strategic approach, spoke further today about the burgeoning relationship between the United States and Pakistan, which he said is “just beginning.”

“The question I get when I go to Afghanistan and Pakistan routinely is, ‘Are you sticking around this time?’” he told an audience at the Brookings Institution here. “I think it’s a valid question, and until that question is answered – and those countries know and the citizens know that our intent is to have a long-term relationship with them, not just a military relationship – I think that question will continue to be out there.”

Mullen said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that with time and patience, the United States will show that it has followed through on its initial commitment to Pakistan. He added that the United States must appreciate the history of the relationships between and among tribes and other regional entities as American engagement develops.

“That will drive strategies in those countries that oftentimes hedge against the possibility that we might leave,” he said. “So it’s going to take us some time and some patience to answer those particular questions.”

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