A senior U.S. defense official said Friday there is no significant movement of senior al-Qaida leadership out of their safe haven in northwestern Pakistan. The official was responding to a story in Friday's New York Times.
The Times story says dozens of al-Qaida fighters and a small number of the terrorist group's leaders are moving to Somalia and Yemen. But the senior defense official who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity said while there may be some movement, and certainly connections between al-Qaida leaders and groups in Somalia and Yemen, he has "seen no evidence" of any senior leaders making the move. The official said it is very difficult for senior al-Qaida leaders to move out of their safe havens without getting caught or killed.
That official and others who spoke to reporters Friday on condition of anonymity also said they expect Pakistan to expand its current offensive against militant groups to include North and South Waziristan, in the Afghanistan border region. But the officials said the Pakistani move is mainly targeting local groups that threaten Pakistan's government.
They say there is some overlap with the groups that provide suicide bombers and other help to Afghan insurgents. But they said Pakistan's primary goals involve its own national security priorities, not attacks on al-Qaida leadership or Afghan insurgents.
The officials also said the Pakistani Army operation against militants in the Swat Valley, and the expected operation in the west, involve more troops than Pakistan has brought to the fight in previous offensives. The U.S. officials also say there is more public support for the operation, in the wake of Pakistani Taliban abuses in Swat. And they say Pakistan is using its Frontier Corps to better effect, giving it follow-up duties rather than putting it into combat.
On Thursday, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, General David Petraeus, said in the Swat operation the Pakistani "concepts are solid and the execution is on track," but that a sustained and broad commitment will be needed to defeat the insurgents.
"What I was trying to highlight here is the very clear recognition of counterinsurgency concepts by not just the Pakistani military but by a much more 'whole of government' approach, if you will. Now, the challenge is going to be, of course, what do you do long term about the police in particular, I think, is going to be a real difficult one. But I think there's an expectation of a need to keep military forces there (in Swat) for some substantial time. And that's a very good recognition, certainly, in my view," he said.
General Petraeus also praised the deployment of high-quality Pakistani army units to both Swat and the North West Frontier Province, and said officials need to move quickly to enable the estimated two million people displaced by the Swat fighting to return home.
Petraeus said the United States is helping Pakistan only in "indirect ways," including the delivery of several military helicopters this week.
The senior defense official who spoke anonymously Friday said there is also substantial intelligence sharing, and United States has been increasing its training of Frontier Corps troops in basic small unit tactics. He said more than 200 Corps members have been trained so far, and will now return to their units to train their colleagues. The Obama Administration has requested 400 million dollars for a new fund to double such assistance to Pakistan. That request is now pending before the Congress.