WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States was at the center of a new diplomatic row after refusing to rule out military action against Al-Qaeda leaders sheltering inside Pakistan, one of its closest “war on terror” allies.
The US director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, said Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was in all likelihood alive and sheltering in a frontier zone where pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal leaders hold sway.
“My personal view is that he’s alive, but we don’t know because we can’t confirm it for over a year,” he told NBC television Sunday. “I believe he is in the tribal region of Pakistan.”
Senior US officials reiterated that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf remained a lynchpin of the campaign against terrorism.
But their comments signaled frustration over what US intelligence chiefs say is Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in lawless parts of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
Asked if the United States could take action inside Pakistan, White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend said: “There are no tools off the table, and we use all our instruments of national power to be effective.”
A new report by the US intelligence community last week said that Al-Qaeda had regrouped in its Pakistani “safe haven” and was determined to inflict mass casualties through new attacks on the United States.
McConnell said that its recovery had been made possible by a September peace accord between the Pakistani government and tribal leaders in the ill-governed border region, which the tribals scrapped a week ago.
Fighting along the rugged frontier has intensified amid a nationwide wave of Islamist bloodshed that has killed more than 200 people, sparked by the Pakistani army’s storming of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad this month.
“Instead of pushing Al-Qaeda out, the people who live in these federally administered tribal areas, they made a safe haven for training and recruiting,” McConnell said.
The US administration’s latest remarks sparked a curt response from Islamabad.
“Our stance is that Osama bin Laden is not present in Pakistan,” Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told AFP in the Pakistani capital. “If anyone has the information he should give it to us, so that we can apprehend him.
Townsend reaffirmed a point first made by White House spokesman Tony Snow last week, when asked whether the United States would use “direct military force” against Al-Qaeda or Taliban elements inside Pakistan.
“No question that we will use any instrument at our disposal to deal with the problem of Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda,” she told CNN, referring to bin Laden’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Newsweek magazine reported in its Monday edition that with bin Laden keeping a low profile, Zawahiri has moved aggressively to take operational control of the group and was behind the wave of retaliatory attacks launched after Pakistani troops overran the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
Pakistan has called US comments “irresponsible and dangerous.” The army Sunday ruled out the possibility of joint operations with US forces to target extremists.
“Pakistani forces are quite capable of conducting operation(s) against militants on their territory and only they have the authority to do so,” chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri told CNN that instead of intelligence estimates, the United States should give Islamabad clear evidence of the Al-Qaeda presence inside Pakistan.
“Let the United States provide us with actionable intelligence, and you will find that Pakistan will never be lacking,” he said, attacking US media for criticism made “despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making.”
Both Townsend and McConnell said the United States stood by Musharraf.
Democrats agitating for an end to the Iraq war have accused Bush of making the United States more vulnerable to terrorism by neglecting the strengthening Al-Qaeda threat from Pakistan.
McConnell said that if Musharraf were forced from power by the Islamist violence and pro-democracy unrest sweeping Pakistan, that could have a “severe impact” on the US struggle against terrorism.