By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007
A senior State Department official defended efforts by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to undermine al-Qaeda's presence in the country's northwest tribal areas, a day after senior U.S. intelligence officials depicted the terrorist group as operating from a "safe haven" in the region.
Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said Pakistan has been "moving troops into the region, putting up better checkpoints near the borders . . . [and] equipped the people there better."
In addition, Boucher told the national security subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "The government has now made clear to the tribes that all the foreign elements, the foreign militants . . . need to be expelled."
Boucher's supportive remarks suggested that senior State Department officials view Pakistan differently than do intelligence officers, who on Wednesday described recent Pakistani government policies as unintentionally permitting an al-Qaeda resurgence. The Bush administration has long considered Musharraf a key ally and U.S. intelligence officials consider al-Qaeda their preeminent target.
A draft of a new National Intelligence Estimate on the al-Qaeda threat -- a document representing the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- is nearing completion. Officials said yesterday it notes that a resurgent al-Qaeda is rebuilding its command structure from a haven along the Pakistani-Afghan border, while recruiting operatives to attempt infiltration of the United States and other Western countries for new attacks.
At the hearing, Boucher said that Pakistan has "captured more al-Qaeda than any country in the world, and lost more people doing that." He added that Pakistani authorities had killed or captured three of the top 10 Taliban commanders in the border area over the past six to nine months -- and caught several more in the past week.
Boucher said that Pakistan has about 85,000 troops stationed in the border area, with Washington reimbursing Islamabad for its $100 million monthly expenses. Musharraf has promised the tribal leaders $100 million annually for 10 years, and the United States has pledged another $150 million annually for five years, in an effort to promote economic development as an alternative to smuggling and terrorism.
"These were all joint efforts with Pakistan that led to the elimination of some of the top Taliban leaders who had been operating from Pakistan to support the insurgency in Afghanistan," Boucher said.
He said that there are signs "every now and then that there's not a wholehearted effort at all levels in all institutions in Pakistan" -- a reference to news accounts of Pakistani intelligence officials supporting terrorists.
"We've raised those when we need to," Boucher said. When asked about Musharraf's role, he said, "I think if Pakistan was not fighting terrorism, there'd be no way we could succeed in Afghanistan or in terms of the security of our homeland."
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who has visited the Pakistani-Afghan border, asked why U.S. troops -- which are not permitted to carry out open operations in Pakistan -- cannot fire on Taliban and al-Qaeda forces coming out of tribal areas.
Boucher agreed this is a problem but said that, although Afghanistan permits U.S. forces to conduct military operations, Pakistan wants operations conducted by its own soldiers. "It's a constant effort," Boucher said. "There's good stuff going on; there's bad stuff going on. There's a lot of turmoil. There's breathtaking complexity, and it is sometimes hard to sort out."
When a committee member asked if Washington would wait for permission to go after Osama bin Laden if he were seen in Pakistan, Boucher said, "I think we would work with the Pakistanis to make sure that one way or the other he was gotten."
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.