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US to step up anti-Al Qaeda efforts in Pakistan

January 28, 2008 11:59 IST

The George W Bush Administration has consistently maintained that it is happy with the way Pakistan, under President Pervez Musharraf, is holding up its end of the war on terror.

That is set to change, as the Administration and the Pentagon prepare to play a more proactive role against a resurgent Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and step up its anti-Taliban efforts in Afghanistan.

The Associated Press, in a story widely reproduced in the US media, cites top US military commanders as saying that Pakistan's tribal areas are the new Ground Zero in the battle against global terrorism -- even more so than Iraq.

In keeping with this view, the Administration has in recent times been stepping up its expression of concern. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the media at the Pentagon last week, said the US administration respects Pakistan's right to decide how to wage war against terrorists on its soil, but added that the resurgent Al Qaeda is not merely a concern for Pakistan alone.

"I think we are all concerned about the re-establishment of Al Qaida safe havens in the border area," Gates is quoted as saying. "I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan. So I think that that is a continuing threat to Europe as well as to us."

The US, which currently has just 100 troops in Pakistan including those engaged in training the local army in counter-insurgency tactics, will consequently send more troops to that country, AP reports. However, the caveat is that such troops will be sent only if Pakistan wants to "cooperate".

Musharraf, as late as last week, in response to such expressions of US concern, categorically said Pakistan will oppose foreign troops on its soil, and threatened that the "man on the street will come out and agitate."

Two US intelligence officials are reported to have travelled to Pakistan over last week, seeking official permission for an escalation in troop numbers; Musharraf is believed to have rebuffed the request.

The development puts the US in a fix. On the one hand, its military and intelligence officers are in agreement that the war against Al Qaeda has to be actively prosecuted on Pakistan soil, and that Pakistani troops and the ISI are not likely to pursue such a war with any vehemence.

The administration, meanwhile, is torn between continuing its public support for Musharraf, and privately bargaining with him to permit more American troops on the ground.

Teresita C. Schaffer, director for South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is quoted by AP as saying the recent visit to Pakistan by Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of American forces in that region, was an indication that the administration is readying to step up its involvement in Pakistan, Musharraf or no. During that visit, Fallon met with senior officials, including the new chief of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

"Why is that happening now?" AP quotes Schaffer as asking. "It suggests to me that the administration is taking this much more seriously than it was."

This is manifest, AP reports, in increased attentiveness to the needs of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, including officers' concerns about countering the threat inside Pakistan.

"The sense I get is that at least in military terms they are getting a response from Washington which they weren't getting all along," Schaffer, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the administration of former President George H W Bush, is quoted as saying.

Elsewhere, the US has increased its troop stength in Afghanistan, and now has 28,000 soldiers on the ground -- this, AP reports, is the highest number since the war against the Taliban began in October 2001. A further 3,200 troops are slated to go to Afghanistan this spring.'

"There is strong pressure now from the international community to find some solution to Afghanistan because of the fear that this could quickly go south," AP quotes Ashley J Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an erstwhile adviser to Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, as saying.

"We haven't lost the war yet, but we could be on our way to doing so," Tellis is quoted as saying.


Rediff News Bureau