Gates: Pakistan an Al-Qaeda Target

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007

A resurgent al-Qaeda terrorist network has shifted the focus of its attacks to Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

"Al-Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistan people," Gates told reporters.

The Pentagon chief did not specify the nature or location of the group's operations in the South Asian nation, but he went on say that al-Qaeda has "reestablished itself" along Pakistan's ungoverned area along its border with Afghanistan.

Gates's assessment of the group's revival echoed the findings of U.S. intelligence officials this summer that al-Qaeda has gained strength and established safe havens in western Pakistan where it could plan attacks and train new recruits. Robert Cardillo, the Defense Intelligence Agency's deputy director for analysis, at the time blamed the group's renewal on an agreement Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made with tribal chiefs in 2006 to withdraw army units from the border area. But the notion that the terrorist group is turning its efforts against Pakistan indicates that the Bush administration views the current tumult in Pakistan as a battle against al-Qaeda rather than an internal struggle between Musharraf and other political figures.

Gates also said that the Pakistani army has had "some success" with its recent fighting against religious militants in the Swat region, also near the Afghan border but north of the tribal areas. Pakistani military officials said last week that they had put down a local Islamic extremist rebellion in that scenic valley.

Experts on Pakistani security affairs had mixed reactions to Gates's assertions about al-Qaeda and operations in Swat.

"I think Gates is right on this one," said Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia. "I have little doubt that al-Qaeda is turning its attention to Pakistan to further destabilize the chaotic political situation there." He noted that in September, Osama bin Laden called on Pakistanis to fight Musharraf, his army and his other supporters.

But a Pentagon specialist on counterterrorism efforts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border dismissed the defense secretary's assessment. "Gates is drinking the . . . Kool-Aid like this administration has for the last six years," he said. "My info suggests that [the Pakistanis] are not doing very well in Swat." He also said that the fighters there are not affiliated with al-Qaeda. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wants to keep his job.

Nor is it clear that al-Qaeda is the real threat in the rest of Pakistan, said Teresita C. Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia. "Clearly, extremist violence has emerged as the biggest danger to the Pakistan state," she said. "I don't know if it is al-Qaeda or not."

Looking elsewhere in Asia, Gates said the U.S. government was "pretty annoyed" with the Chinese government's refusal last month to permit a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, to make a long-planned port call in Hong Kong. The surprise move has been variously attributed to Chinese unhappiness with President Bush's appearance with the Dalai Lama in October or with how the United States has reacted to the Taiwan government's plan to hold a referendum in March on whether to apply to join the United Nations under that name rather than under its official title, the Republic of China.

Gates attributed the Chinese action to "confusion" in the Beijing government. There were indications, he said, that "the military may have made a decision that was not communicated to the political side of the government."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a prepared statement before her own news conference yesterday, decried the Taiwanese government's planned referendum on joining the United Nations as "a provocative policy." She said the move "unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."

Chinese officials have sought a tough statement from the administration on the referendum, and Rice's remarks came while the United States is hoping that China would put pressure on North Korea to live up to a pledge to fully disclose its nuclear programs.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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