WASHINGTON — More than two weeks removed from the raid that found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended efforts to build trust with Pakistan’s leadership and said the region is too significant for those relations not to continue.

Their comments come after members of Congress this week have demanded the U.S. reconsider billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, questioned the Afghanistan-Pakistan war strategy, and called for Islamabad to do more to hand over terrorists hiding in Pakistan, following a high-profile trip by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass.

Gates and Mullen said the U.S. must not back off its efforts to win over Pakistan and work with its military, which they said had been humiliated by the U.S. military raid deep into its territory and wants to carry out future operations on its own.

Both men said they had no evidence to suggest any senior Pakistan leaders knew bin Laden’s location.

“It’s my supposition — I think it’s a supposition shared by a number in this government — that somebody had to know,” Gates said at the Pentagon. “But we have no idea who and we have no proof or no evidence.”

Pakistani reactions to the raid have fluctuated from outrage at the American unilateral action to shame over not being able to nab bin Laden. But Gates and Mullen said they believe Pakistan’s leadership understands it must eliminate safe havens for terrorist leaders, wants to do so and said the U.S. should not back off efforts to facilitate the joint goal.

“I think it would be a really significantly negative outcome if the relationship got broken,” Mullen said.

Mullen has made more than 20 trips to Pakistan during his term, trying to rebuild years of silence between the two militaries, frequently publicizing his close relationship with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Mullen said his investment in Kayani is what allowed the U.S. to get this far in opening Pakistani trust.

Kayani, along with intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, has borne the brunt of domestic criticism following the raid, while American skepticism has grown over how much they knew about bin Laden’s location.

“I’ve gone into this with my eyes wide open. We were not trusted because we left for a significant period of time. And that trust isn’t going to be re-established overnight,” he said, adding the U.S. has always wanted Pakistan to move against terrorists at a faster pace. “I’m not trying to give him an excuse, but matching those clocks has been difficult.”

Twitter: @StripesBaron

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