U.S. Intelligence Assessment on Pakistan
By William McQuillen: Bloomberg, July 23, 2007
July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to achieve a political settlement in restive tribal areas backfired, resulting in al-Qaeda establishing a safe haven there, the top U.S. intelligence official said.
Still, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said Musharraf, under pressure from Islamic militants in his country and facing criticism in the U.S., remains a critical American ally and the fall of his government would have a ``severe impact'' on the battle against terrorism.
``The government of Pakistan chose to try a political solution'' with tribes along the border with Afghanistan, McConnell said today on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' program. Instead the tribal leaders are giving al-Qaeda ``a safe haven for training and recruiting. And so, in that period of time, al- Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum.''
McConnell said it is his ``personal view'' that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is alive and hiding in the region, though U.S. spy agencies haven't had any solid intelligence about him in more than a year. A video of him that surfaced recently on a militant Web site ``was actually old videotape,'' he said.
The intelligence chief made his comments four days after the Bush administration released a summary of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which said al-Qaeda, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., was regaining strength in Pakistan and honing its tactics in Iraq.
McConnell's remarks were reinforced by President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend.
``They've been able to take advantage of the agreement between President Musharraf and the tribal elders in the federally administrated tribal area to find safe haven, to train, to recruit,'' Townsend said on ``Fox News Sunday.''
As she did last week, Townsend said the U.S. wouldn't rule out taking military action inside Pakistan to act against a specific al-Qaeda threat to the U.S.
``Job No. 1 is to protect the American people, and there are no options that are off the table,'' she said.
Khurshid Kasuri, the foreign minister of Pakistan, said his government is best equipped to root out al-Qaeda and other terrorists hiding on its territory.
``We have committed to controlling terrorism,'' Kasuri said on CNN's ``Late Edition'' program. ``Let the United States provide us with actionable intelligence and you will find that Pakistan will never be lacking.''
Denial From Pakistan
McConnell's comments about bin Laden sparked a denial from Musharraf's government. ``Our stance is that Osama bin Laden is not present in Pakistan,'' Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told Agence France-Press in Pakistan. ``If anyone has the information he should give it to us, so that we can apprehend him.''
McConnell said Musharraf likely would survive any upheaval caused in Pakistan by the eventual capture of bin Laden. Pakistan's military is battling unrest that followed an army assault on a mosque complex in Islamabad occupied by pro-Taliban militants.
Tribal leaders in North Waziristan said a week ago they were pulling out of a peace accord with the government under which they agreed to expel non-Pakistani gunmen. The 10-month- old agreement was aimed at forcing out al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in return for government promises to pull back troops to border posts.
``There is a price to pay, but President Musharraf is a moderate, he has a moderate view,'' and is attempting to ``eliminate the extremists,'' McConnell said.
Bush has been under pressure from some members of the U.S. Congress to cultivate alternatives to Musharraf, who had helped the U.S. defeat Afghanistan's Islamist Taliban regime. Critics contend the 63-year-old general, installed by a 1999 coup, has resisted democratic changes that might usher in new leadership and has failed to combat al-Qaeda's resurgence.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan has been governed by the army for more than half the years since the Muslim nation won independence in the 1947 partition of colonial India. The longest period of democratic rule was between 1988, when Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister, and 1999, when Nawaz Sharif was overthrown by Musharraf.
McConnell said that while it is ``fair to say'' that al- Qaeda has a bigger presence in Iraq than before the U.S.-led invasion, the group has been knocked ``back on their heels'' there because the coalition military has been more effective and Iraqis are turning against them.
While much of the violence in Iraq is the result of sectarian frictions, al-Qaeda `` attempts purposefully to serve as an accelerant,'' he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: William McQuillen in Washington at email@example.com