U.S. defends Musharraf's efforts against Al-Qaida

( LatWp ) -A senior State Department official defended efforts by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to undermine al-Qaida's presence in the country's northwest tribal regions, a day after senior U.S. intelligence officials depicted the terrorist group as operating from a ``safe haven'' in the region.

Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said the Pakistani government has been ``moving troops into the region, putting up better checkpoints near the borders ... (and) equipped the people there better.''

In addition, Boucher told the national security subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, ``The government has now made clear to the tribes that all the foreign elements, the foreign militants ... need to be expelled.''

Boucher's supportive remarks suggested that senior State Department officials view Pakistan differently than intelligence officers, who on Wednesday described recent Pakistani government policies as unintentionally permitting an al-Qaida resurgence. The Bush administration has long considered Musharraf a key ally, while U.S. intelligence officials consider al-Qaida their preeminent target.

A draft of a new National Intelligence Estimate on the al-Qaida threat--a document representing the consensus views of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies--is nearing completion. Officials said Thursday it notes that a resurgent al-Qaida rebuilding is command structure from haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, while recruiting operatives to attempt infiltration of the United States and other Western countries for new attacks.

At the hearing, Boucher said ``they have captured more al-Qaida than any country in the world, and lost more people doing that.'' He added that Pakistani authorities had killed or captured three of the top 10 Taliban commanders in the border area over the past six to nine months--and caught several more in the past week.

Boucher said Pakistan now has some 85,000 troops stationed in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, with Washington reimbursing Islamabad for its $100 million monthly expenses. Musharraf has promised the tribal leaders $100 million annually for 10 years, and the United States has pledged another $150 million annually for five years, in an effort to promote economic development as an alternative to smuggling and terrorism.

``These were all joint efforts with Pakistan that led to the elimination of some of the top Taliban leaders who had been operating from Pakistan to support the insurgency in Afghanistan,'' Boucher said.

Boucher conceded that there are signs ``every now and then that there's not a wholehearted effort at all levels in all institutions in Pakistan''--a reference to news accounts of Pakistan intelligence officials supporting terrorists. ``We've raised those when we need to,'' Boucher said. When asked about Musharraf's role, Boucher said, ``I think if Pakistan was not fighting terrorism there'd be no way we could succeed in Afghanistan or in terms of the security of our homeland.''

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