SEVILLE (Spain), Feb 9: Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is to visit Pakistan in a bid to upgrade political ties with Islamabad, a move which officials hope will help the alliance’s increasingly uphill struggle against a resurgent Taliban.

Mr Scheffer told reporters at a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Seville, Spain, that he planned to visit Pakistan in the coming weeks to step up political discussions with the country's leaders. No dates have been given for the trip which will be the first visit to Islamabad by a secretary-general of the 26-nation alliance.

Alliance officials said the visit would focus on upgrading political contacts between Nato and Pakistan, following recent moves to step up military cooperation between the two sides.

The Nato chief has in recent weeks significantly toned down the alliance’s earlier criticism of Pakistan for allegedly harbouring and arming Taliban fighters, insisting instead of the need for a “greater effort” by all sides to curb the cross-border infiltration of insurgents.

In Seville, Mr Scheffer continued to take a softer line — at least in public — on Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban, saying he did not think it was helpful to use public rhetoric to tackle “very complicated questions.”

Alliance officials told Dawn the shift in attitudes was the result of a growing realisation that Islamabad’s help was vital if the alliance was to succeed in countering an expected spring offensive by the Taliban.

Recent upgraded military contacts between Nato and Pakistan — including a recent intelligence-sharing initiative — were also a reflection of Islamabad’s efforts to tackle the Taliban, the officials said.

Nato’s drive to forge closer political ties with Pakistan is part of a new US-led drive by the alliance to draw up a so-called “comprehensive approach” for Afghanistan which would include military efforts but also increased economic help and investment for the country.

US officials have told Dawn that Washington also wants to channel more aid to Pakistan’s northern areas to tackle poverty and disaffection on both sides of the border.

The meeting in Seville was dominated by calls by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates for a Nato spring offensive against the Taliban aimed at crippling the Afghan insurgency. Several European states, including heavyweights Germany and France, however, voiced strong reservations about sending more soldiers to volatile southern Afghanistan.

However, Gates was insistent that Nato must use the coming warmer months to “significantly disrupt” the increasing cycles of violence caused by the Taliban. Nato currently has 35,460 soldiers in Afghanistan. The US has 8,000 troops in the country under a separate command.

The Nato operation in Afghanistan is starkly divided between countries involved in combat and those keeping their soldiers away from ongoing firefights.

Soldiers from the US, Canada, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are engaged in military operations against the Taliban. Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Turkey, however, have mainly deployed their troops in relatively peaceful regions of Afghanistan.



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