The United States is working intensely with the Pakistani government to organize closely coordinated military operations against Islamic guerrillas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border that would prevent al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives from finding safe haven on either side, according to the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill said in an interview Friday that, while existing policies governing joint U.S.-Pakistani activity in the border area do not permit such complementary operations, he was "hopeful, based on the dialogue and coordination that we have ongoing," that an agreement could be reached. He cautioned, however, that "we have to make a few more bold steps before I would think we can initiate the kind of operations we ought to have."
U.S. military officials have been eager to step up efforts to chase down Taliban and al Qaeda operatives who fled the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and found refuge in the so-called tribal areas of western Pakistan, a rugged, remote region where the Pakistani government exerts limited control.
There has been widespread speculation in recent weeks that U.S. and Pakistani forces have been working together along the border to follow fresh leads in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But McNeill said that the 11,500 U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan are not involved in any operations with Pakistani troops, and he insisted that he still has no compelling evidence that bin Laden is alive -- nor that he is dead.
Some U.S. military officials have expressed frustration with the Pakistanis' efforts to apprehend Islamic guerrillas on their side of the border, and McNeill said it was "curious" that few former Taliban leaders have been arrested in Pakistan. He said the issue had been discussed with the Pakistani military and "is a concern to me."
Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said Friday that U.S. officials had voiced broad satisfaction with Pakistan's cooperation in the war against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists. He said Pakistan was coordinating military efforts with coalition forces in Afghanistan, but that each was staying on its side of the border. Whenever information is presented by the Americans or others about the possible location of former Taliban leaders, he said, Pakistani forces quickly follow up.
Inside Afghanistan, McNeill said, there has been an "uptick" in coalition operations against al Qaeda and other Islamic militants, a trend he expects to continue into the spring. In the past two months, coalition forces have mounted large operations in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
While military officials in Afghanistan have predicted that a war in Iraq would trigger a surge in violence in Afghanistan, McNeill said the increase in the activities of his forces stems not from preparations for an Iraqi war but from long-term military plans and new intelligence.