WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is pressing Pakistan to use its military to rout al Qaida from havens on its soil, a top State Department official told a Senate panel on Wednesday.
"We can do a better job in trying to elicit a better performance from the Pakistani military inside their border," Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Burns said Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had a strong commitment to fight the Taliban and al Qaida.
But when pressed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on whether Musharraf was going after al Qaida, Burns replied cautiously: "We need to see more effective action."
A recent National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus report from American intelligence agencies, found that al Qaida has reconstituted and has found haven in Pakistan to regroup and plot attacks.
Kerry said Afghanistan couldn't be stabilized if its enemies could hide across the border in Pakistan.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said that after giving Pakistan $10 billion in U.S. aid in recent years, anti-Americanism was growing in Pakistan and Musharraf's government was unwilling to "put al Qaida out of business."
"I don't think that's sustainable anymore," Menendez said.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Americans want to know why al Qaida had been allowed to grow stronger in Pakistan. "Why have we failed to reduce the al Qaida threat?" he asked.
Burns said that the United States hadn't lost its focus on al Qaida. Aid to Pakistan had increased, and the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is up to 27,000, more than double the number in 2002.
"We do understand that our national security interests are on the line there in both countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said.
The Bush administration has requested $750 million dollars for the next five years for the border area and has started building roads and secular schools.
In a separate hearing, the Pentagon's top intelligence official said he doubted that combined military operations by Pakistan and U.S. aid for the poor border region would convince tribal leaders to withdraw their support of al Qaida and Taliban fighters.
Undersecretary of Defense James Clapper, testifying at a hearing of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said Pakistan and the United States should try to improve the region's quality of life, but added:
"I don't think we should have a great expectation of this, given the tribal dynamics. There are deep-seated, long historical dynamics that I think are going to make that a challenge."
Pakistan is preparing to launch a major offensive against militant tribesmen and al Qaida, but Clapper cautioned that the Pakistani army faces an uphill fight.
"Al Qaida is now in a part of Pakistan that is largely inaccessible to Pakistani forces, the Pakistani government," Clapper said. "The topography is very hostile. It's very barren. I think the population that does exist there has always been outside the control of Islamabad and is sympathetic to al Qaida, both in terms of its religious ideology as well as their tribal traditions of hospitality to outsiders."
Clapper said that U.S. special forces could quickly launch strikes against al Qaida targets if they obtain "actionable intelligence."
"I think our objective will be to neutralize, not eliminate, but certainly make this safe haven — as we have the others — less safe and less appealing" for al Qaida, he said.
Some U.S. defense and diplomatic officials and many experts have cautioned, however, that any U.S. military incursions could enflame resistance to the Musharraf regime and spark violence in other parts of Pakistan.
"I can think of no quicker way of turning all of Pakistan against the anti-terrorism goals that are so important to the United States and turning the Pakistan army into a hostile force," said Teresita C. Schaffer, the South Asia program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington.