WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials Thursday said they oppose plans by some Pakistani politicians to open talks with Islamic militants, saying that could lead to a repeat of a failed 2006 peace accord.
That accord "didn't really work," Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Senate committee. U.S. officials say the agreement gave al Qaida and other militant groups breathing space to regroup.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the State Department's point man on South Asia, was blunter.
"We've always found that a negotiation that's not backed by a certain amount of force can't really force out the bad guys," Boucher said in an interview on National Public Radio, referring to militants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
"Ultimately, it's the outcome that matters," he said.
The two parties that triumphed in the Feb. 18 elections for the national parliament, however, have stressed the need for a political — rather than a military — solution to the insurgency.
Also, McClatchy reported on Tuesday that the smaller secular party that won the elections in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province plans to open talks with local Islamic insurgents allied with al Qaida.
Negroponte and Boucher, though, both expressed optimism that Pakistan's new federal and provincial governments, which are still to be formed after the Feb. 18 elections, will continue to cooperate with the U.S. against Islamic extremists.
Their comments underscore the dilemma that the administration is facing since his party's poor showing in the elections undermined President Bush's long-time ally in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf.
In Pakistan Thursday, a pre-dawn missile strike killed at least 12 suspected foreign Islamic militants in a village near the border with Afghanistan, according to residents contacted by phone.
The militants were staying at a guesthouse belonging to a member of an Islamic political party with links to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, residents said.
It's not clear who fired the missile, but it's widely believed that U.S. forces in Afghanistan or a pilotless U.S. drone staged the attack in Azam Warzak in the South Waziristan tribal agency, which has been a refuge for al Qaida fighters and Afghan and Pakistani militants.
A U.S. missile strike in the same area last month killed a senior al Qaida commander, Abu Laith al-Libi.
Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, said that Pakistan's new political leaders are likely to be torn about how to confront terrorism.
After the December murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, they realize that you cannot conclude a "separate peace" with radicals, Grenier told a forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.
On the other hand, he said, a temptation remains "to try to make that separate peace," he said. "The problem is, it's unsustainable."
At Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Negroponte appeared to back away slightly from the strong endorsement the White House gave Musharraf after his party lost at the polls.
"We intend to pursue (both countries') common interest vigorously with whatever government emerges from the election," he said.
However, Negroponte refused to give a U.S. position on whether judges Musharraf fired in November should be reinstated. If reinstated, the judges could void Musharraf's October re-election as president.
"We have . . . been silent on the subject," Negroponte said.
Senators peppered him with demands that the White House increase non-military aid, particularly for Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas, and send a signal of support for moderate political leaders in the election's aftermath.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., has proposed tripling non-military aid to Pakistan to roughly $1.5 billion annually.
"It seems to me that this is a crucial turning point," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. He urged Negroponte to "at least spell out what type of money we're thinking about."(Landay reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.)
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