Afghans pose awkward questions for US military chief By Dan De Luce (AFP) â€“ 2 hours ago KANDAHAR, Afghanistan â€” The US military's top-ranking officer fielded some tricky questions in a meeting with Afghan tribal elders on Monday, as he underlined Washington's long-term commitment to the country. Over tea in polystyrene cups at a US military base in the southern city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, Admiral Mike Mullen invited three community leaders to offer their honest opinions -- and they obliged. As the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff sat humbly listening, the elders expressed their frustration at Pakistan's role in the nearly nine-year war, US policies and the credibility of local government officials. "You come here to defend us, to help protect us. But then shouldn't you be protecting us from Pakistan?" said one of the men, clad in a traditional turban. His question echoed a common sentiment among Afghans, who accuse their neighbour of fomenting violence. The issue of Pakistan's clandestine influence took on added urgency after the release of secret US government documents alleging Islamabad had deep ties to Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan. Mullen, striking a conciliatory tone, told the elders that the United States also had concerns about Pakistan's links to militants. "I've raised that issue. The Pakistani leadership knows it's a priority," he said. "Long-term pressure" on Islamabad, he said, would likely bear fruit. Mullen added that Pakistan wanted to see "a stable, peaceful Afghanistan" -- a phrase he often uses in public remarks. But the elders vehemently disagreed. "It's not true," one of them said. "What Pakistan wants is for Afghanistan to be like a province of Pakistan." Mullen asked for patience on Pakistan as well as US military operations against the Taliban. "We are not magic. We are not all-powerful," he said. "We are making progress but it does take some time." With the Taliban intimidating and killing those who cooperate with the NATO-led force, the three men took a risk in coming to Camp Nathan Smith to meet Mullen, who is on a two-day visit to the country. A few of their fellow elders invited to the session chose not to come. US officials kept the Afghans' identities secret to protect them from possible retribution. Despite their criticism, the three Afghans were clearly opponents of the Taliban and sympathetic to the United States. The session, like shuras often attended by US commanders and officials, showed how even those inclined to support the US-led effort saw the war much differently than officials in Washington. While President Barack Obama has set July 2011 as the start of a gradual withdrawal of US forces -- a move designed in part to spur the Kabul government to action -- the tribal leaders said they were worried the Americans would abandon the country. "You foreigners have provided a lot of assistance. You've been very helpful. And we're hearing that your departure is imminent. And that worries us," one said. Mullen tried to reassure them. "We're very focused on a long-term partnership with Afghanistan," he said. US forces would remain in the country and the pace of any drawdown would be carried out carefully, he said. "We left before. It didn't work," Mullen said, referring to the 1990s, when the United States washed its hands of Afghanistan once Soviet forces were chased out. The elders said security was deteriorating and they would have preferred that the American military had not launched military operations around Kandahar. The tribal leaders also said that the central and local governments -- backed by generous US aid -- were unreliable and ignored the "voice of the people." Mullen thanked them for speaking their minds and said even a powerful country like the United States could not work miracles. "I wish I could throw a switch and it would be over," he said. One of the Afghans smiled and replied that it seemed as if the United States was indeed able to "throw a switch" in 2001, when US and allied forces quickly toppled the Taliban regime. "We thought we had thrown it, but we really hadn't," Mullen said. At the end of the session, the elders offered a crate of green grapes as a gift. One of them asked if Mullen could intervene on behalf of his son being held at the Bagram prison. The admiral promised to look into it and took a document from the man. Then they stood up and shook hands, promising to try and meet again soon.