Last updated: September 23, 2008 11:59 pm

Gates defends operations inside Pakistan

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Robert Gates, US defence secretary, on Tuesday suggested that the US was justified under international law in conducting unilateral military operations inside Pakistan to protect American troops.

The US has recently stepped up drone-fired missile attacks in Pakistan and US commandoes have conducted a covert operation inside Pakistan to combat extremists attacks against US forces inside Afghanistan.

Mr Gates said Pakistan probably did not agree that international law permitted unilateral action, but he said the Pentagon had an obligation to protect US troops.

“The authorities we have been granted were carefully coordinated over a protracted period of time in the interagency,” said Mr Gates. “I would simply assume that…appropriate international law was consulted by the State department”.

Mr Gates was responding to Jim Webb, a Democratic senator, who told the defence chief that the United Nations charter – under which the US operates in Afgahnistan – gave the US the right of self defence “where a foreign government is either unable or unwilling to take care of international terrorist activity inside its borders”.

Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for president, and John McCain, the Republican candidate, have sparred over Pakistan, with Mr Obama suggestion the US should be prepared for unilateral action in some cases.

The Pentagon is developing alternative supply lines to bring military equipment and fuel into Afghanistan after reports that Pakistan blocked an important supply route in protest over US unilateral military action inside Pakistan.

Speaking on Capitol Hill, General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs, said the Pentagon was testing alternative routes to prepare for a scenario where Pakistan prevented the US military from using supply routes into Afghanistan.

Underscoring the importance of Pakistan, Mr Gates, said the US relied on supply routes through Pakistan for 80 per cent of the cargo, and 40 per cent of the fuel, brought into Afghanistan.

Gen Cartwright told the Senate armed services committee that it would be “challenging to sustain our presence” without Pakistani logistics support.

Earlier this month, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, the Pakistani defence minister, reportedly said Pakistan had blocked a fuel supply route because of a US special operations raid inside Pakistan. Officials later said the checkpoint was closed to allow another military operation.

The development of alternative routes also comes after a Russian warning that it might bar Nato aircraft from its airspace because of criticism of its actions in the conflict with Georgia.

The new concerns about Pakistan come as the Bush administration considers revamping its strategy towards Afghanistan, taking greater account of extremists who are launching attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan. George W. Bush, the US president, has requested the completion of a review within a couple of weeks.

Intelligence and military officials have been warning for more than a year about the ability of Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists to operate in Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

At least in public, relations between the US and Pakistan have deteriorated in recent weeks following a higher tempo of missile attacks from US drones and the recent commando operation. Some experts have suggested that the US has an agreement with Pakistan to undertake certain operations inside its borders with the understanding that Islamabad will strongly denounce the operations.

Mr Gates on Tuesday denied reports that Pakistani soldiers had shot at US troops and helicopters, saying “there was no evidence”. A Pakistani army spokesman said Pakistani troops had been authorised to fire on US forces inside Pakistan, but later claimed his words were taken out of context.

On Afghanistan, Mr Gates said the US could send the additional 10,000 troops requested by US commanders by spring at the earliest.

He added his “megaphone diplomacy” had prompted Europe to send more troops over the past year, but said he did not expect significant troop increases in the future.

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