The U.S. military commander who oversees the Afghanistan war said today that Pakistan's arrest of several Taliban leaders reflected an "evolution" in how the country's powerful military perceived militants who it once supported.
Gen. David Petraeus, speaking to a small group of journalists during a visit to Islamabad, said Pakistan now agreed with the United States that a "syndicate" of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan posed a challenge to the entire region and had to be confronted.
In recent weeks Pakistan has made the most dramatic arrests of the nine-year war in Afghanistan, picking up at least half a dozen Afghan Taliban leaders, including the group's military commander and two "shadow governors" from northern Afghanistan, according to Pakistani officials.
In the past U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of harboring or at least ignoring three major Afghan Taliban groups that use Pakistan as a safe haven to attack American troops in Afghanistan.
Petraeus' comments today reflect a merging of American and Pakistani interests when it comes to Afghanistan: a willingness by Pakistan to confront the Afghan Taliban, and a willingness of the United States to listen and agree to Pakistan's strategic interests in the region, according to both American and Pakistani officials.
The general praised Pakistan for what he described as an aggressive stance toward the Taliban, an apparent reference to military offensives against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan.
In the past, however, U.S. officials have expressed impatience that Pakistanis didn't extend their offensive to a major Taliban haven in North Waziristan.
"Pakistan has put a lot of short sticks into a lot of hornets nets," he said, arguing that Pakistan's military campaign had confronted multiple militant groups across the region. "You have to be able to pull out some of the sticks before putting them in other places."
Petraeus heaped praise on Pakistan's military for confronting the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghanistan border, calling the military operation "very impressive" and a "classic counterinsurgency campaign."
He said that last spring Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani laid out an "impressive" and "well thought out" 18-month vision of military campaigns across Pakistan, and that he had stuck to it. Petraeus even declined to ask the Pakistani military to expand its campaign into North Waziristan, reflecting his extreme trust in Kiyani.
"If Gen. Kiyani said there was no need for steamroller operation in North Waziristan, then I agree with him," Petraeus said.
Petraeus declined to speak about the specific intelligence that led to the arrests of the Afghan Taliban leaders, but he disagreed with a reporter who suggested the Pakistani intelligence agencies could have made those arrests in the past.
"These arrests are made as intelligence presents itself," he said.
Petraeus also disagreed with suggestions that Mullah Baradar, the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban, was arrested because he was negotiating directly with the Afghan government and in so doing shutting Pakistan out from the reconciliation process.
"I am not aware that any of these individuals were involved in any reconciliation talks," he said of the leaders who had been arrested.