ISLAMABAD (AFP) — The United States' military commander and regional troubleshooter Tuesday held key talks in Pakistan, where President Asif Ali Zardari told them his country was fighting terror for its survival.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived late Monday for talks on Washington's sweeping new strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda and its allies.
It is the first top-level visit since US President Barack Obama put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda, unveiling a new strategy nine days ago to commit thousands more troops and billions of dollars to the Afghan war.
"Pakistan is fighting a battle for its own survival," a statement issued by the presidency quoted Zardari as telling Mullen and Holbrooke during their talks.
"The president said the government would not succumb to any pressure by militants," it said, despite Zardari sparking controversy in the West with a call for dialogue with those who lay down their arms.
The talks covered regional security issues, the Afghanistan strategy announced by Obama less than two weeks ago and a recent surge in militancy and extremism in the region, the presidency said.
Pakistani officials said the US visitors were scheduled to hold separate talks with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani before leaving for India later Tuesday.
The visit came as The New York Times again reported that the United States intended to step up drone attacks on militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, which border Afghanistan, and might extend them deeper inside Pakistan.
The newspaper said "officials" proposed broadening the missile strikes by unmanned aircraft to Pakistan's southwest province of Baluchistan, which comes under federal government control, unless Pakistan reduces incursions by militants.
Pakistan is deeply opposed to the drone attacks -- around 37 of which have killed over 360 people since August 2008 -- saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment in the nuclear-armed nation.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said after holding talks with Holbrooke and Mullen that US drone attacks are working to the advantage of the extremists, highlighting differences with Washington.
"We did talk about drones and let me be very frank. There's a gap. There's a gap between us and them, and I want to bridge that gap," Qureshi told a joint news conference.
"There is a difference of view," Qureshi told reporters.
"My view is that they are working to the advantage of the extremists. We agree to disagree on this. We will take it up when we meet again in Washington," Qureshi added.
Holbrooke said that Pakistan and the United States found themselves in a similar predicament.
"We believe that Pakistan's interest and American's interest run in parallel and that the United States and Pakistan face a common strategic threat, a common enemy and a common challenge and therefore a common task," he said.
Mullen said Pakistan's and US interests "overlap significantly."
The country has paid dearly for its alliance with the US in its "war on terror." Militant attacks have killed more than 1,700 people since July 2007.
Pakistan angrily rejects criticism that it does not do more to quash Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants holed up on the Afghan border, pointing to the deaths of more than 1,500 troops killed at the hands of Islamist extremists since 2002.
Cash-strapped Pakistan is keenly awaiting a US aid package that aims to triple economic assistance to 7.5 billion dollars over five years.
"What is expected in the coming months is intensification of the campaign in search of Al-Qaeda and its local allies in Pakistan," analyst Imtiaz Gul told AFP when asked about the significance of the US visit.
"Drone attacks are a reality that Pakistanis shall have to live with."
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