WASHINGTON, (AP) – Growing violence in Pakistan is being closely watched by U.S. military officials, who are concerned that the instability could further strengthen al-Qaeda strongholds along the country’s border with Afghanistan, a senior Defense Department official says.
Pakistani security forces, who have faced heavy opposition from insurgents in these tribal areas, have had their “ups and downs,” said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The level of violence is ramping up. It isn’t Iraq, but it’s getting worse,” he added in the Friday interview.
Yet there are no plans to involve U.S. forces in military operations inside Pakistan.
Vickers said the fighting has not affected U.S. operations in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led coalition has maintained a presence since October 2001 after routing the harsh Taliban-led Islamic government that had sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s government is “a very important ally in the war in terror,” Vickers said. But the relationship has become strained since Musharraf imposed emergency rule Nov. 3, a move criticized by the United States.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is scheduled to meet Saturday with Musharraf.
Despite the internal issues, Vickers said Pakistan can do more to stem terrorist activity on the border.
“We would always like them to do more given the importance of the problem,” he said. “They’re certainly doing a lot.”
Vickers, who was confirmed by the Senate in July as the Pentagon’s top civilian official for special operations, has substantial experience in central Asia. As a CIA officer in the early 1980s, he led the U.S. effort to arm the Afghan rebels who ultimately drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan.
Vickers, affirming a long-standing belief held by U.S. officials, said he believes bin Laden is hiding in western Pakistan, an area that operates autonomously from Musharraf’s government. The Bush administration has been trying to capture or kill bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“If we knew, I think we’d kill or capture him. We’re trying very hard to do that,” Vickers said.
The remoteness of the area and the hostility of the population there to Pakistani forces compound the problem of finding the al-Qaeda leader, he added.
“The al-Qaeda senior leadership has had time to build relationships there with the locals,” he said. “They tend to be rather circumspect about their movements.”
Homegrown terrorist Eric Rudolph, who committed a series of bombings across the United States in the 1990s, avoided federal authorities for nearly five years in the Appalachian wilderness, he noted.
“This is that on steroids,” Vickers said.