Afghanistan leader threatens to send troops into Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai Sunday inflamed relations with Islamabad by threatening to send troops into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban fighters who find sanctuary across the border.

Karzai alleged that Pakistan was secretly supporting the Taliban, including providing a refuge for the group's leader, Mullah Omar. The United States, struggling militarily in Afghanistan, has also accused Pakistan, supposedly a key ally in the anti-terror fight, of providing shelter for militants. Pakistan has angrily rejected the charge.

"Afghanistan has the right to destroy terrorist nests on the other side of the border in self-defense," Karzai said, speaking to reporters in Kabul.

"When they cross the border from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and coalition troops, it gives us exactly the right to go back and do the same."

Pakistan was already outraged over the deaths last week of 11 of its soldiers at a border check post; they died after an American air strike.

The United States and Afghanistan are deeply concerned that the Taliban uses Pakistan's tribal border area, called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), to launch attacks in Afghanistan and then retreat back into Pakistani territory, beyond the reach of coalition and Afghan troops. But it was the first time that Kabul had warned that it would send troops over to deal with the problem itself.

Those concerns have been further heightened by Pakistan's new policy of negotiating peace deals in FATA, aimed at stopping attacks by the militants within Pakistan. The accords, some fear, could result in the Pakistani army pulling out of FATA, freeing its warlords, including militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, to focus on fighting in Afghanistan.

"Baitullah Mehsud should know that we will go after him now and hit him in his house," said Karzai.

The Afghan president is under immense pressure to improve law and order at home, with his government reeling from a massive jail break on Friday from Kandahar, in which about 400 Taliban were freed after insurgents blew their way into the city's prison. In Pakistan, Karzai's threats were seen as distraction tactics.

"This is a lot of bluff," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. "He is trying to deflect attention from the inadequacies of governance and lack of security in Afghanistan."

Analysts believe that, given the military challenges Karzai faces at home, an incursion into Pakistan was unrealistic.

"It's the militants who will benefit from this," said Mehmood Shah, the former senior-most administrator for FATA. "The Pakistan government will get fed up of these Afghan and American accusations ... Maybe 20 percent of the problem comes from the tribal area (FATA), but what about the other 80 percent that is in Afghanistan?"

The Pakistani government reacted sharply to Karzai's comments, which came only days after Pakistan's foreign minister visited Kabul for talks with Karzai.

"We will neither interfere in the internal affairs of any country, nor will we allow anyone to interfere in our affairs," Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said.

"Such statements will not help in the normalization of friendly relations between the two countries and will hurt the sentiments of people on both sides of the border," Gilani said.

Karzai suggested that Pakistani intelligence agents "trained" the militants and he referred accusingly to "Mullah Omar of Pakistan," resurrecting longstanding Afghan allegations that the one-eyed Taliban leader had been provided with a safe haven within Pakistan.

The United States' position matches Karzai's but the administration has never stated it so baldly in public. Both countries believe that until the issue of militant hideouts in FATA is addressed, there is little chance of peace in Afghanistan.

Following the international donor conference for Afghanistan last week in Paris, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Boucher said that American officials met the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and stressed "the need to avoid compromises with militants — with the extremists".

"We do have misgivings about some of the things that we see going on these days," said Boucher, who will pay another visit to Pakistan next month. "The ones (peace deals) in Swat and Waziristan."

The United States believes that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is hiding in FATA. According to a Times of London report over the weekend, President Bush has ordered an all-out effort by U.S. and British special forces to capture bin Laden from his Pakistani sanctuary before his presidential term ends.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.