ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — While top U.S. military officials warn that al Qaida radicals are determined to destabilize Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that his government had succeeded in all but eliminating the group from his country.
"They are in the mountains but in much smaller numbers. So this is the success against the al Qaida," Musharraf told former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a question-and-answer session during the World Economic Forum in the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland.
Musharraf said Pakistani forces had "eliminated" some 600 to 700 al Qaida extremists in recent years and that they were "no more in our cities." Nor are they in the valleys near the border with Afghanistan, he said.
Radicals have roiled Pakistan with terrorist attacks, including dozens of suicide bombings in the past year. U.S. and Pakistani officials, in fact, blame al Qaida-linked warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who commands some 5,000 armed Taliban militants, for masterminding the assassination Dec. 27 of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf said his nation's army sought to defeat al Qaida militarily. He described its members as foreigners who have no right to be in Pakistan.
Casting homegrown Taliban radicals differently, Musharraf said they were "our own people" and pledged to "wean away the population" influenced by them.
In contrast to the alarm of U.S. officials, who cite the Taliban's growing influence in Pakistan, Musharraf said Pakistan's military forces had put the group on the defensive.
"The desperation of these people is now visible in the form of suicide attacks against Benazir, against all political leaders, against me," Musharraf said.
Top U.S. military officers have voiced concerns this month about deteriorating security in Pakistan.
The Pentagon is "extremely concerned" about al Qaida activity in Pakistan, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Jan. 11. "There are concerns now about how much (al Qaida has) turned inward, literally, inside Pakistan," he said.
On Tuesday, the State Department's counterterrorism chief, retired Army Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, said the lack of intelligence that Pakistan had provided on extremist activity in the tribal areas made him uncomfortable.
"There's gaps in intelligence," Dailey said. "We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on al Qaida. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban."
The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, said Wednesday that Taliban and al Qaida groups saw chances to create turmoil in Pakistan.
"I think that again they will move where the best opportunity is so as to get the highest payoffs," Rodriguez said. "Right now, that probably seems to be in Pakistan, based on what's happened over the last couple of months there."
Combat has flared along the Afghan-Pakistani border in South Waziristan, where Pakistani soldiers backed by helicopters attacked presumed militant strongholds Wednesday and early Thursday, killing 40 rebels, the army said. Eight soldiers also were killed.