Remarks by outgoing U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte have sparked an angry reaction from Pakistan. Testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday, Negroponte said al-Qaida has proved to be resilient, and is forging new relationships from its operational base inside Pakistan. As VOA intelligence correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Pakistan and the United States have somewhat different views about linkages between Islamic extremism and terrorist groups.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said al-Qaida had found safe haven in Pakistan. But he did not, as some media outlets reported, accuse Pakistan of harboring al-Qaida.
"They are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe," he said.
Nevertheless, the remarks sparked sharp reaction from Pakistani officials. Some of them complained bitterly that Pakistan was not given credit for what it has done to eradicate al-Qaida. But the later testimony of the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, which was little reported, did give credit to Pakistani counterterrorism efforts.
"Pakistan's direct assistance has led to the eradication or capture of numerous al-Qaida terrorists," he noted. "Nevertheless, Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan remains a haven for al-Qaida's leadership and other extremists."
But the perception remains strong in U.S. circles that Pakistan has not been aggressive enough in eradicating terrorist sanctuaries in the tribal-ruled lands along the border, from where a resurgent Taleban has been launching cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.
Privately, U.S. officials say that at least some elements of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) are sympathetic with the Taleban and perhaps al-Qaida. The Taleban was largely a creation of Pakistan and the ISI, say analysts, as a way of getting a friendly and less contentious government in Kabul.
Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the U.S. Institute for Peace, says that while the West tends to lump the Taleban and al-Qaida together, Pakistan sees the Taleban as a local phenomenon with whom they can cut deals. Al-Qaida, on the other hand, is regarded by most Pakistani officials as foreign interlopers. The problem, she says, is that there is often overlapping membership by some Islamic extremists in both groups.
"I would not say that Pakistan deliberately harbors al-Qaida," she said. "I do think that they harbor the Taleban, or at least elements of it. But I think that where Pakistan has the most difficulty is when members of their protected organizations, like certain people in the Taleban, the Kashmir focus groups, when they have overlapping membership with people that Pakistan thinks are bad guys."
P.J. Crowley, special assistant for National Security Affairs during the Clinton Administration, says the resurgent Taleban and al-Qaida pose a renewed threat to the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Appearing on the VOA program Encounter, Crowley, now director of National Defense and Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress, argues that Pakistan is more important in the war on terror than Iraq.
"One can argue that there is something of a safe haven along the tribal areas in Pakistan, which has allowed the Taleban and al-Qaida to pose something of a comeback and a renewed threat to the Karzai government," he explained. "This is an operation that is starved for resources. So I think that if you're calculating where you're going to make your next investment in the war on terror, I would not choose Iraq."
Analysts point out that President Pervez Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan since a coup in 1999, must walk a tightrope between meeting American demands to get tough with terrorists in the tribal zones and not alienating the Islamic religious parties in a presidential election year in Pakistan.