Bush plans to warn Musharraf on aid

Democrats might force cuts unless Pakistan fights al-Qaida

February 26, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has decided to send an unusually tough message to one of his most important allies, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces became far more aggressive in hunting down al-Qaida operatives, senior administration officials say.

The decision came after the White House concluded that Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Bush during a visit here in September. Musharraf insisted then, in private and in public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country's lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban or their training camps. Now, American intelligence officials have concluded that the terrorist infrastructure is being rebuilt and that while Pakistan has attacked some camps, its overall effort has flagged.

"He's made a number of assurances over the past few months, but the bottom line is that what they are doing now is not working," a senior Bush administration official who deals often with Southeast Asia issues said last week. "The message we're sending to him now is that the only thing that matters is results."

Democrats, who took control of Congress last month, have urged the White House to put greater pressure on Pakistan because of statements from American commanders that units based in Pakistan that are linked to the Taliban, Afghanistan's ousted rulers, are increasing their attacks into Afghanistan.

For the time being, officials say, the White House has ruled out unilateral strikes against the training camps that U.S. spy satellites are monitoring in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border. The fear is that such strikes would result in what one administration official referred to as a "shock to the stability" of Musharraf's government.

Musharraf, a savvy survivor in the brutal world of Pakistani politics, knows that the Bush administration is hesitant to push him too far. If his government collapses, it is unclear who would succeed him or who would gain control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

But the spread of al-Qaida in the tribal areas threatens to undermine a central element of Bush's argument that he is succeeding in the effort to curb terrorism. The bomb plot disrupted in Britain last summer, involving plans to hijack airliners, has been linked by British and U.S. intelligence agencies to camps in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas.

Musharraf has told U.S. officials that Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas in recent years so alienated residents that they no longer provide the government with useful information about the movements of senior Islamic militants.

Congressional Democrats have threatened to review military assistance and other aid to Pakistan unless they see evidence of aggressive attacks on al-Qaida. The House passed a measure last month linking future military aid to White House certification that Pakistan "is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control."

Pakistan is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid. Bush has proposed $785 million in aid to Pakistan in his new budget, including $300 million in military aid to help Pakistan combat Islamic radicalism in the country.

The rumblings from Congress give Bush and his top advisers a way of conveying the seriousness of the problem, officials said, without appearing to issue a direct threat to the proud Pakistani leader themselves.

"We think the Pakistani aid is at risk in Congress," said the senior administration official, who declined to speak on the record because the subject involved intelligence matters.

The Bush administration has sent a series of emissaries to see the Pakistani leader in recent weeks, including the new secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates. Gates was charged with prompting more action in a region in which U.S. forces operate with great constraints, if they are allowed in at all.

"This is not the type of relationship where we can order action," said an administration official involved in discussions over Pakistan policy. "We can strongly encourage."

Relations between Musharraf and Bush have always been tense, as the Pakistani leader veers between his need for U.S. support and protection, and his awareness that Pakistan's population and intelligence service have strong sympathies for al-Qaida and the resurgent Taliban. Officials involved with the issue describe the current moment between the leaders as especially fraught.

U.S. intelligence officials have made an assessment that senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan have re-established significant control over their global network and are training operatives in some of the camps for strikes on Western targets.

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