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US Official: Al-Qaida Grows Stronger in Pakistani Safe Havens


The top U.S. intelligence officer says Pakistan could make more energetic anti-terrorist efforts along the Afghan border. But, he adds, Pakistan's military ruler has political concerns in an election year. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the comments came just after Vice-President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Islamabad for talks with President Pervez Musharraf.

Director of National Intelligence John M. (Mike) McConnell said the Pakistani government strategy of signing peace deals with pro-Taleban tribal leaders along the Afghan border has backfired.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, McConnell said President Pervez Musharraf's is trying to balance U.S. security concerns with political ones.

"The president of Pakistan believed that he could be more effective by signing this peace agreement," said Mr. McConnell. "And in our point of view, capabilities of al-Qaida for training and so on increased. And so [came] the vice-president's visit, and others' visits, to make the case that we have to be more aggressive in going after al-Qaida in Pakistan. The balancing act, of course, is the president's standing in that country with an election coming up this fall."

U.S. intelligence officials have said the Taleban and al-Qaida fighters have been using the tribal areas, located in rough terrain along the Afghan border, as safe havens from which to launch cross-border raids against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has complained bitterly about the matter.

Musharraf insists his government has been doing everything it can to eradicate the terrorist strongholds. As part of a two-pronged strategy, he has used armed force in the tribal areas, but he has also cut (made) peace deals with local tribal leaders, many of whom are actively sympathetic with the anti-Western views of al-Qaida and the Taleban.

On Monday, Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Islamabad to meet President Musharraf.

According to published reports, he delivered a blunt message that the Pakistani leader has to be more aggressive in rooting out the terrorist sanctuaries. One published report says he warned Mr. Musharraf that Congress could reduce or cut U.S. aid to Pakistan if Islamabad is not perceived as doing more to stop the terrorists.

Intelligence chief McConnell said President Musharraf is caught between his desire to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts and domestic political concerns.

"We believe they could do more," he added. "And the issue of being elected for the next term is the issue in my view that the president of Pakistan is wrestling with."

Pakistan is to hold parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. Islamist parties, who are bitterly opposed to Musharraf's cooperation with U.S.-anti-terrorist efforts, have emerged as a formidable electoral force, at least on the provincial and local levels.

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