Unhappy US not yet ready to strike Pakistan ‘safe haven’

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : Faced with increasingly strident demands from presidential aspirants and others for direct action against resurgent Al Qaeda “safe haven” in Pakistan, President George Bush’s administration says it would rather work diplomatically with Islamabad while keeping all options open.

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While tribal areas in Pakistan have seen some Al Qaeda build-up, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday Islamabad was dealing with the problem, though they haven’t solved it yet.

“Obviously we’re not happy with that and the Pakistanis are not happy with that,” he said.Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf “is somebody who clearly has chips in the game here” and he is now moving in there in force.

“That seems to be a reasonable way to proceed, and we will provide whatever assistance we can,” Snow said. “We realise it’s a sovereign government. But they’re putting people on the front lines, they’re taking casualties, they’re taking injuries, people are dying. So they’re fighting it.”

Declining to comment on Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s suggestion that he’d send US troops into Pakistan to take care of those safe havens, Snow said, “Our approach to Pakistan is one that not only respects the sovereignty of Pakistan as a sovereign government, but is also designed to work in a way where we are working in cooperation with the local government.”

Asked how Obama’s approach was any different from Bush adviser Frances Townsend’s assertion that US would do the same thing if it had actionable intelligence, Snow said while one is an assertion of simply going across a border whether there’s actionable intelligence or not, “our view is that we keep all options open if there’s actionable intelligence.”

Snow’s comments followed Obama’s assertion before a Washington think tank that if elected in November 2008 he would be willing to attack inside Pakistan with or without approval from the Pakistani government.”If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” Obama said.

He would also make hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan making substantial progress in closing down training camps, evicting foreign fighters and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks on Afghanistan.

Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, too did not rule out US attacks inside Pakistan, citing the missile attacks her husband, then President Bill Clinton, ordered against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998.

“If we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured,” she said.

A third Democratic candidate, John Edwards, said he would not hesitate to use force against extremists but said, “I believe we must first use maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to take all necessary actions to stop Al Qaeda.”

Meanwhile, Gary L. Ackerman, Democratic chairman of a House panel on the Middle East and South Asia, said a Bush adviser’s declaration that US would have to consider using military force inside Pakistan if it identified key Al Qaeda targets there was a “stunning admission that the policy of largesse toward Pakistan pursued by the Administration for the last 5 years had failed.”

Testifying before the panel, John Gastright, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South And Central Asian Affairs, said Pakistan plays a key role in some of US’ most critical foreign policy goals, such as eliminating terrorism and violent extremism as a threat to our security, and creating a regional environment inhospitable to terrorism and other forms of violent extremism.

The Bush administration also intends “to assist President Musharraf to fulfil his commitment to making a successful transition to a democratically elected, civilian government, he said.

Washington thinks that in Musharraf’s three-pronged security, governance and development strategy the government has finally found the right approach in the tribal areas “and we and the international community should support it,” Gastright said.

At a separate hearing, a top Pentagon official also expressed concern at the speed with which Al Qaeda is setting up a safe haven in Pakistan and feared the efforts of the Musharraf government may not be enough to address the threat posed by the resurgent militant group.

“I honestly don’t know. How fast they ( Pakistan) could move. I am concerned with the speed with which it is building up-the safe haven is building up,” said Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff designate at his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.