US repeats warning of military strike in Pakistan

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : The US has asked Pakistan to do more to defeat terrorist forces on its soil, repeating its warning that Washington may launch a military strike against Al Qaeda "safe haven" in its tribal region.

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The warning came from US defence and intelligence officials at a House panel hearing Wednesday when pressed on what could be done to eliminate what they conceded was a "safe haven" for the terrorist organisation in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan.

James R. Clapper Jr., undersecretary of defence for intelligence, told a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees that more involvement of Pakistani government troops would help, as would "more freedom of action on our part to engage in Pakistan".

Asked by Representative Robert E. Andrews whether the US would be willing to intercede with Pakistan's Special Forces against Al Qaeda if it received actionable intelligence, Clapper said, "Well, yes sir, we would be".

"The American people, both Republicans and Democrats, want this job done by the United States," Andrews said. "We do not want to farm this one out."

Pete Verga, acting assistant secretary of defence for homeland, interjected, "I would not want the American people to get the impression that if there were information and opportunity to strike a blow to Al Qaeda in (the tribal area) that we would not take immediate advantage of that opportunity."

Meanwhile, under secretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that despite impressive achievements fighting terrorism, Pakistan still needs to do more to defeat terrorist forces on its soil.

Pakistan's future is key to stability in South Asia, Burns said describing it as a region of "singular importance" to US foreign policy since the Sep 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America. Its success in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban is indispensable to the global effort to defeat radical Islamic terrorist groups in South Asia and worldwide, he said.

Pakistan's tribal regions of north and south Waziristan have become "safe havens for violent extremist and terrorist activity". Burns said not enough was being done to bring to justice top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the tribal regions.

"Long-term denial of these areas to terrorists will require local cooperation, and Pakistan will have to find a more effective and successful way to do so," he said. Recent reports of Al Qaeda activity in those regions, said Burns, underscored the need for Pakistan to "elevate its efforts to fight this enemy".

The United States, he said, remained engaged with Pakistan on a full range of non-proliferation and counter-proliferation issues because "they remain vital to the US and global interests" and key to preventing the emergence of a "shadow proliferation network".

Referring to a network led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former head of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme – who sold nuclear technology and know-how to rogue regimes around the world – Burns said: "Khan did enormous damage to international efforts to restrain the spread of nuclear technology." The Pakistani government has "direct responsibility to help us undo that damage and ensure it does not happen again".

Back at the House panel hearing, Democratic members complained that the National Intelligence Estimate released last week portrayed a resurgent Al Qaeda after the US has spent billions of dollars on the war on terrorism and lost more than 3,000 troops fighting in Iraq.

Democrats said the intelligence report contradicted President Bush's earlier repeated assertions that Al Qaeda was "on the run" and had been decimated since the organisation was driven from Afghanistan by US-backed forces in late 2001.

The defence and intelligence officials testified that Al Qaeda attempted to reconstitute itself in Pakistani urban areas, only to be pushed out by Pakistani forces in early 2004. Al Qaeda then "relocated" to north Waziristan, where it was far more difficult for Pakistani forces to find its members.

"We saw indications that the top leadership was able to exploit that comfort zone" and exert more influence over Al Qaeda affiliates elsewhere, Edward Gistaro, the CIA's national intelligence officer for transnational threats, told the hearing.

Clapper said the Pakistani government was "probably not" doing everything Washington would like in pursuing Al Qaeda. But he added that "I think they're doing what they can given the constraints" they face.

Michael Leiter, deputy director of the National Counter-terrorism Centre, testified that a peace agreement Musharraf signed last year with the north Waziristan tribes contributed to the development of a safe haven for Al Qaeda in the tribal areas.

Mary Beth Long, acting assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, told the hearing that the agreement has since been "abandoned by both sides" and is "no longer in effect".