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Official: Pakistan Remains Strong U.S. "War Against Terror" Ally; But Doubts Persist

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With U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Afghanistan to discuss the war against terror with U.S., NATO and Afghan leaders, Pakistan launched a raid against suspected terrorist groups in its tribal areas.

Seven helicopters attacked a complex in South Waziristan (Pakistan) where local and foreign extremists had been training, according to Pakistani Major General Shaukat Sultan.

"I can't give you the exact number of casualties but most of them were believed killed," said General Shaukat.

The questions that logically arise are: why now? And is this more a show by Pakistan or is this a real effort to destroy what many intelligence experts consider a key refuge for Al Qaeda?

The "tribal areas" of Pakistan are a kind of "wild west; where even the Army of Pakistan fears to tread," a senior U.S. diplomat with expensive experience in Pakistan told us.

The senior U.S. diplomat told us, on condition of anonymity, that "Of course, Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war against terror."

We put the questions to the diplomat, who has represented the U.S. in Islamabad during his tenure with the State Department, after an official U.S. government report to Congress made an unusually harsh criticism of Pakistan last week.

In his annual "threat assessment" to Congress Thursday, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte pointedly said "the Taliban and Al-Qaeda maintain critical sanctuaries" in Pakistan.

"Pakistan is our partner in the war on terror and captured several Al-Qaeda leaders. However, it is also a major source of Islamic extremism," he said.

"Eliminating the safe haven that the Taliban and other extremists have found in Pakistan's tribal areas is not sufficient to end the insurgency in Afghanistan but it is necessary," Negroponte said.

The government of Pakistan bristled at Negroponte's remarks. The foreign ministry in Islamabad described them as "questionable criticism" and urged Negroponte to acknowledge the country's role in breaking the back of Al-Qaeda, responsible for the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The ministry said Pakistan had done more than any other country to fight terrorism.

A day after Negroponte's remarks, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Friday that Al Qaeda leaders had "secure hideouts" in Pakistan.

The government of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf signed a controversial peace deal with tribal elders in early September, under which Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters would be expelled from the area, but cross-border attacks have reportedly increased markedly since then.

Just in the last few weeks, Pakistan said it was mining the border between the tribal areas and Afghanistan in an effort to stop cross-border incursion by terrorists, but our man on the ground Muhammad said the people being killed by the mines were "mostly herders and innocent travelers."

Peter Brookes at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC has said President Musharraf's policy in the tribal areas "is failing." Brookes is a former deputy US assistant secretary of defense.

"I think that Musharraf is with us on Al-Qaeda but I am afraid that Al-Qaeda and other jihadists are also finding sanctuary in that part of the country," he said.

"There is a very strong belief that Osama bin laden and (his deputy) Al-Zawahiri are both in Hindu Kush of Pakistan. They are not in Afghanistan," Brookes said.

Frederic Grare, a French scholar with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "Absolutely, there is growing American unease and I would certainly enlarge that to say there is a growing international unease with Pakistan" over the battle against terrorism.

Grare is leading a project to assess US and European policies toward Pakistan.

He said the "traditional assumption" was that Pakistan harbored militant groups, such as the Taliban, to safeguard its regional interest and would "hand over those linked to global terror groups who were a liability."

"Now the question is: 'Are the Pakistanis really protecting those guys? Are they keeping them as a sort of 'exchange asset' or whatever?'"

Although many have question whether Pakistan's efforts against Al Qaeda have been genuine and robust, President Bush and his administration have gone out of their way to praise President Musharraf as a strong ally in the war against terror.

Last September 10, Vice President Dick Cheney, in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," made an impassioned address praising the government of Pakistan. But Mr. Cheney also pointed out that any sign of U.S. abandoning its mission in Iraq sends a definite sign of weakness that is troubling in Kabul and Islamabad.

We intentionally quote a rather long part of the Cheney discussion because the passion of his words seemed beyond the normally diplomatic choice of words that the Vice President is usually known for:

"President Musharraf has been a great ally. There was, prior to 9/11, a close relationship between the Pakistan intelligence services and the Taliban. Pakistan was one of only three nations that recognized, diplomatically recognized the government of Afghanistan at that particular time. But the fact is Musharraf has put his neck on the line in order to be effective in going after the extremist elements including al-Qaeda and including the Taliban in Pakistan. There have been three attempts on his life, two of those by al-Qaeda over the course of the last three years. This is a man who has demonstrated great courage under very difficult political circumstances and has been a great ally for the United States".

"So there's no question in that area along the Afghan/Pakistan border is something of a no man's land, it has been for centuries. It's extraordinarily rough territory. People there who move back and forth across the border, they were smuggling goods before there was concern about, about terrorism. But we need to continue to work the problem. Musharraf just visited Karzai in, in Kabul this past week, they're both going to be here during the course of the U.N. General Assembly meetings over the course of the next few weeks. We worked that area very hard, and the Paks have been great allies in that effort."

"Pakistan, we've gone in and worked closely with Musharraf to take down al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia, same thing. In all of those cases, it's been a matter of getting the locals into the fight to prevail over al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-related tyrants."

"Think of Musharraf who puts his neck on the line every day he goes to work, when there've been attempts on his life because of his support for our position. And they look over here and they see the United States that's made a commitment to the Iraqis, that's gone in and taken down the old regime, worked to set up a democracy, worked to set up security forces, and all of a sudden we say it's too tough, we're going home. What's Karzai going to think up in Kabul? Is he going to have any confidence at all that he can trust the United States, that in fact we're there to get the job done? What about Musharraf? Or is Musharraf and those people you're talking about who are on the fence in Afghanistan and elsewhere going to say, 'My gosh, the United States hasn't got the stomach for the fight. Bin Laden's right, al-Qaeda's right, the United States has lost its will and will not complete the mission,' and it will damage our capabilities and all of those other war fronts, if you will, in the global war on terror."

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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.

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