US Sends Conflicting Signals on Pakistan's Tribal Belt

US sends conflicting signals on Fata
By Anwar Iqbal & Masood Haider: Dawn, July 19, 2007

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, July 18: The Bush administration is sending conflicting signals to Pakistan on what action it may take against suspected Al Qaeda hideouts in the tribal belt, with the White House saying that the US will not launch direct strikes on those targets and a senior presidential aide saying that “no option is off the table.”

“You don’t blithely go into another nation and conduct operations,” said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow when asked at a briefing whether the US could send troops into the tribal areas to root out Al Qaeda.

“The way to look at this is that there are no options off the table if that is what is required,” said Frances Townsend, Homeland Security Adviser to President George Bush, when asked if the US could send troops into the tribal zone.

The New York Times said in a report on Wednesday that American officials had been meeting in recent weeks to discuss an aggressive strategy. One that would include both public and covert elements.

The newspaper, citing Bush administration officials, said that there was growing concern that ‘pinprick’ attacks on Al Qaeda targets were not enough and that some new measures must be taken. However, it added, there was a consensus.

Both officials were commenting on an official US intelligence report, released on Tuesday afternoon, which claimed that Al Qaeda and its affiliates had established a safe haven in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and had replaced fallen senior leaders and operational commanders.

Mr Snow, however, faced a different question than Ms Townsend and was asked if the US could send troops to Pakistan as it did against Iraq in 2003.

He said the US invasion of Iraq had been made in a different situation and President Bush had the support of 17 UN resolutions when he sent troops to that country.

Mr Snow also disagreed with a suggestion that the US could seek similar world support for sending troops into Pakistan’s tribal belt as it did against Iraq.

“We are working with a sovereign nation which is an ally with us, in this particular case,” he said.

Ms Townsend, who launched the intelligence report, was asked about the possibility of sending troops to the tribal belt at three different occasions.

Soon after she launched the report, she was asked, “Why should the Americans citizens not say, why don’t we go into Pakistan and deal with it that way?”

“There’s no question the president has made perfectly clear if we had actionable targets anywhere in the world, putting aside whether it was Pakistan or any place else, we would pursue those targets,” she replied.

In an interview to Fox News on Wednesday morning, she was asked if the US thought President Pervez Musharraf was capable of taking care of Al Qaeda and Taliban activities in the tribal areas. Washington believed he was, she said.

“But make no mistake – the president has been clear – job number one is protecting the American people. And we will do what’s necessary, taking no options off the table to do that,” she added.

Responding to yet another question on the same issue, she said if sending troops was what was required, the US would do so.

She said that the US would continue to work with Pakistan to address the threat that came from the tribal areas but she would not disclose the details of the strategy as it might put lives at risk.

“I’m obviously not going to go into the details of it, because I’m not going to put our people, or Pakistani officials, at risk. In the last two weeks they’ve had nearly 80 killed, and I’m not going to do that,” she added.

MUSHARRAF BLAMED: The NYT story claimed intelligence officials held President Musharraf responsible for Al Qaeda resurgence.

“While identifying the main reasons for Al Qaeda’s resurgence, intelligence officials and White House aides pointed the finger squarely at a hands-off approach toward the tribal areas by President Musharraf, who last year brokered a ceasefire with tribal leaders in an effort to drain support for Islamic extremism in the region.”

“It hasn’t worked for Pakistan,” Ms Townsend told the newspaper. “It hasn’t worked for the United States.”

The intelligence report, the most formal assessment since the Sept 11 attacks about the terrorist threat facing the US, concludes that the US is losing ground on a number of fronts in the fight against Al Qaeda, and describes the organisation as having significantly strengthened over the past two years.

But American officials make little secret of their scepticism that Gen Musharraf has the capability to be effective in the mountainous territory along the Afghan border, where his troops have been bloodied before by a mix of Al Qaeda leaders and tribes that view the territory as their own, not part of Pakistan.

“We’ve seen in the past that he’s sent people in and they get wiped out,” one senior official involved in the internal debate told the newspaper. “You can tell from the language today that we take the threat from the tribal areas incredibly seriously. It has to be dealt with. If he can deal with it, amen. But if he can’t, he’s got to build and borrow the capability.”

Ms Townsend declined to describe what might be alternative strategies for dealing with the Al Qaeda threat in Pakistan, but acknowledged frustration that Al Qaeda had succeeded in rebuilding its infrastructure and its links to affiliates, while keeping Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants alive for nearly six years since the Sept 11 attacks, the Times said.

“The intelligence report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, represents the consensus view of all 16 agencies that make up the American intelligence community. The report concluded that the US would face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years,” the newspaper said.

That judgment was not based on any specific intelligence about an impending attack on American soil, government officials said. Only two pages of ‘key judgments’ from the report were made public; the rest of the document remained classified.

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