On his recent visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed previous U.S. official statements about how al-Qaida and the Taleban have found safe harbor in Pakistan’s rugged, semi-autonomous tribal areas. The same day Pakistani forces launched a powerful air strike against a series of suspected al-Qaida camps in South Waziristan, one of the tribal regions that border Afghanistan.
Earlier this month during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, outgoing U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said that the al-Qaida terrorist network had found safe haven in Pakistan.
VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand, who covers both Pakistan and Afghanistan, says it marked the first time that Ambassador Negroponte had so publicly singled out Pakistan as the leading base of operations for al-Qaida. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Benjamin Sand says that sources have told him during the past year that al-Qaida has managed to reestablish a global network with its headquarters in Pakistan. And he adds, it means that now people inside Pakistan – such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri – are able to “potentially direct attacks” against the United States and Great Britain as well as establish operations throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Benjamin Sand says that, when Mr. Negroponte issued his statement critical of the Pakistani government, the reaction in Islamabad was “frustrated, angry, and defensive.” He notes, however, that Mr. Negroponte’s “positive assessment” of the Pakistani government’s commitment to fighting the terrorists was under-reported in the U.S. media. Furthermore, U.S. officials have gone out of their way to say that Islamabad is a “key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror.” Mr. Sand adds that Pakistan provides intelligence to Western sources, helps track al-Qaida leaders, and has arrested a number of key al-Qaida figures since 9/11. Pakistan has sent 80,000 troops into the Waziristan semi-autonomous tribal areas. But attacks by militants crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan have tripled since September, when President Musharraf signed a controversial peace accord with tribal leaders in the area of North Waziristan.
Indeed, analysts say Pakistan has been reluctant to take on the Taliban. Anwar Iqbal, Washington correspondent for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, says it is true that the Taleban use the tribal areas as a sanctuary. But he notes that President Pervez Musharraf must walk a tightrope between meeting U.S. demands for greater cooperation and his own need to placate the Islamist political parties in an election year. Mr. Iqbal points out that Pakistan’s president has done “more than anybody else for America in the war against terror” and that Islamabad may have to deal for a long time with the “tribes fighting against the central government.” Furthermore, he observes that one of the mistakes people in Washington make is to assume that their needs and national interests are the same as those of Pakistan.
Michael Evans, defense editor of The Times of London, notes that intelligence assessments over the past 6 to 9 months indicate that al-Qaida has slowly begun to rebuild. Although Mr. Evans is skeptical that Pakistan serves as the center of operations, he does not think that al-Qaida is “sufficiently strong or sufficiently global” to mastermind “everything going on in every part of the world.” Mr. Evans suggests that a number of “franchise organizations around the world linked directly or indirectly to al-Qaida” may be carrying out their own operations.
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