By Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
The top U.S. military officer warned yesterday that al-Qaeda leaders operating in Pakistan's tribal areas are planning new terrorist attacks against the United States, making it imperative that Pakistan's new government take action to eliminate their sanctuary there.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the al-Qaeda threat from Pakistan represents a "huge challenge" for the United States, but said Pakistan has been lacking in its execution of a strategy to eradicate the safe havens for terrorists and insurgents in the lawless region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Mullen called on Pakistani authorities to enforce any deals they strike with tribal leaders in the FATA and to require not only the expulsion of al-Qaeda but also a halt to the flow of insurgents across the border into Afghanistan. However, Mullen predicted slow progress, citing Pakistan's complex tribal allegiances and sensitivities over sovereignty that have limited U.S. military involvement in the region. "We're just not going to solve it overnight," said Mullen at a gathering of defense reporters. "It's going to take longer than most people realize."
Islamabad's newly appointed ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said yesterday that U.S. leaders have told his government that if the United States suffers an attack that is traced back to Pakistan, Washington will have to take steps to retaliate. "Those [statements] have been made," Haqqani told editors and reporters at The Washington Post yesterday. "We want to make sure that it doesn't come to that."
Haqqani reiterated that in targeting extremists, "Pakistani preference remains to not have outside forces' action on the Pakistan side of the border."
Despite overtures by a provincial leader and the Pakistani military to extremists like Baitullah Mehsud, talks have so far not produced any agreements, Haqqani said. "There will be no agreement similar to agreements of the past," he said, referring to earlier deals that either were not honored or fell apart.
Haqqani listed new conditions his government will impose in any deal with insurgent groups. Fighters will now have to pledge not to launch attacks in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. All foreign fighters in the tribal areas must be expelled. And extremists must promise not to give safe haven to any group targeting any of Pakistan's allies, including the United States. "That's something that American intelligence is very interested in," Haqqani said. "No safe haven or safe passage for any group that wants to plan attacks against any friend of Pakistan."
Fighters will also have to promise to decommission large weapons and account for smaller arms, the envoy said.
Haqqani predicted that key players in the tribal areas will eventually comply with the government's demands. "There will be people other than those who belong to hard-core groups that would be willing to agree to these conditions, and those are the reconcilable people that we would like on board," he said. "There are people from the tribal areas, from the Mehsud tribe for example, that would be willing to subscribe to these conditions in return for the benefits."
In a bid to improve coordination on counterterrorism, Islamabad is pressing the Bush administration to improve intelligence sharing, which is still severely limited seven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks transformed Pakistan into the most important U.S. relationship on counterterrorism. The administration has been reluctant to provide either electronic intercept equipment or raw intelligence about extremists, for fear that terrorists would be tipped off by sympathizers of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistani military or intelligence services.
"We intend to overcome any misgivings that have undermined intelligence sharing in the past," Haqqani said.
On Afghanistan, Mullen said he is working to fill a shortage of military trainers for local security forces, stating that his top priority is to muster an additional brigade of U.S. troops to carry out that mission. "I am pressing the system very hard to see if we can generate any additional trainers," he said.
He said he has no plans to relieve the 2,200 U.S. Marines deployed to southern Afghanistan after they depart with other Marine units in the fall. But he said the planned deployment of several hundred French troops to eastern Afghanistan this summer will free up a U.S. battalion that could then be moved south.