U.S. won't bar attack on Qaeda in Pakistan

Posted in United States | 23-Jul-07 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser, said Sunday that U.S. attacks within Pakistan were a possibility.

WASHINGTON: The United States would consider using military force inside Pakistan if it identified key Qaeda targets there, a White House official said Sunday, prompting the Pakistani foreign minister to reject such talk as "irresponsible."

The official, Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser, told CNN that if the United States had "actionable targets, anywhere in the world," including Pakistan, then "we would pursue those targets."

"There are no options that are off the table," she said.

The Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, angrily warned against U.S. attacks in his country, saying attacks in the sensitive border area could cause civilian deaths and enrage public opinion. He said Pakistani forces were capable of policing the area and of destroying Qaeda targets with less chance of killing civilians.

U.S. senators of both parties largely supported Townsend, though they cautioned against undercutting the already embattled Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, at an extremely sensitive juncture, with dangerously unpredictable results.

Townsend spoke days after a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate found that Al Qaeda had reconstituted itself in the rugged northwestern provinces of Pakistan and was planning new attacks.

Critics seized on that message to mean that the administration's focus on Iraq had diverted resources from a potentially more important front in the fight against Al Qaeda.

The administration, in turn, has blamed the agreement that Musharraf entered into in September with tribal leaders in those provinces and said that Pakistan needed to adopt a tougher approach - something the Islamabad government says it has already been doing.

"Pakistan's commitment cannot be doubted by anybody," Kasuri said on CNN when asked why Pakistan was not doing more. "Let the United States provide us with actionable intelligence, and you will find that Pakistan will never be lacking."

He noted that Pakistani troops in the region had recently taken hundreds of casualties. Anti-government violence flared this month, apparently wrecking the September agreement, after Pakistani troops attacked and killed scores of Islamic militants holding out in the Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Violence in the tribal areas, including lethal ambushes and suicide attacks, follows a rise in anti-Musharraf protests in the country just months before elections, leaving Pakistan at a delicate pass - and perhaps explaining Kasuri's angry tone.

"Some people are talking irresponsibly of attack in the tribal areas by the United States," the foreign minister said, referring not specifically to Townsend's comments but to U.S. news reports that he attributed to leaks, presumably meant to shift blame from the Bush administration for allowing the Qaeda resurgence.

"People in Pakistan get very upset when, despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making, you have the sort of questions that are sometimes asked by the American media," Kasuri said.

He said the Pakistani military was more than ready to attack Qaeda targets.

"What we need is actionable intelligence," he said.

Indiscriminate attacks could only undercut efforts to win "hearts and minds" in the sensitive region, he said. "We cannot afford what is conveniently called 'collateral damage.' "

After his appearance, CNN asked Townsend to respond.

"I understand their anger," she said of the Pakistanis. "They've taken hundreds of casualties."

But, Townsend said, "Job No. 1 is protecting the American people," and she reiterated that "we use all our instruments of national power to be effective."

Hinting broadly that U.S. special operations teams or unmanned aircraft were already involved in the troubled region bordering Afghanistan, she said: "Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things." Those sorts of covert tactics are considered more likely than any frontal military assault.

Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said that he believed that Osama bin Laden was living in the border area, and that Musharraf's September agreement had backfired.

"Al Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum," McConnell said on NBC. "The leadership's intact. They have operational planners, and they have safe haven. The thing they're missing are operatives inside the United States."

Democratic senators appearing on Sunday television programs agreed with Townsend that attacks inside Pakistan should not be ruled out, but they underscored the importance of not undermining Musharraf, who they said remained one of the closest U.S. allies.

"I don't think we should take anything off the table," said the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. "The invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the country, has created an area for Al Qaeda that didn't exist before the invasion, but we should go after them wherever they are," he said on CBS. "They're evil people."

Any move that undermined Musharraf, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, a Democrat on the intelligence committee, said on Fox, would mean that "we create a bigger safe haven with an unstable government."

And Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican on the intelligence committee, said on the same program that so long as Musharraf remained in power and continued cooperating with the United States, "we're going to continue to work with him."

Islamic militants detonated bombs close to military convoys and attacked government positions in Pakistan's restive northwestern tribal region, The Associated Press reported Sunday from Miran Shah, citing Major General Waheed Arshad, the army's top spokesman. Ensuing gunfights left 19 insurgents dead, he said.