- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday that Osama bin Laden may be in a remote and “treacherous” area of Pakistan that his government’s forces are entering for the first time in more than a century.

During a news conference with President Bush to announce $3 billion in proposed U.S. aid to Pakistan, Gen. Musharraf said bin Laden might be crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in an area known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

“This is the first time that the Pakistan army and our civil armed forces have entered this region, and we are in the process of opening out this region,” he said.

“Now, whether Osama bin Laden is here or across the border, your guess, sir, will be as good as mine,” he added. “But the possibility of his maybe shifting sides on the border is very much there.”

Mr. Bush did not dispute the possibility that the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network, which was based in Afghanistan when its members attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, is alive 19 months after the fall of the Taliban regime.

“If Osama bin Laden is alive,” Mr. Bush said, “the people reporting to him, the chief operators, people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, are no longer a threat to the United States — or Pakistan for that matter.”

Mr. Bush said bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s former dictator, are not the only terrorist “principals” at large.

“There are others around, too, and we are just on the hunt, and we’ll find them — it’s a matter of time,” he said at the news conference, which was held at Camp David. “It could take a day, or it could take a month. It could take years.”

Gen. Musharraf said Pakistani forces have entered a rugged and dangerous region of the country known as the FATA for the first time in “over a century” to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists.

A senior administration official said that although Pakistan is “making genuine efforts” at opening up the FATA, “it’s clear it hasn’t been enough yet.” In addition to paying dividends militarily, the effort is expected to aid tribal Pakistanis by providing roads and other infrastructure.

“It’s a two-pronged policy,” the administration official said. “The [Pakistanis] have never controlled the tribal areas. They figure they need to, to get back control. It’s not just moving in people with guns, it’s also developing the areas.”

As a gesture of thanks for Gen. Musharraf’s support in the war against terrorism, Mr. Bush proposed $3 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan, half of which would be earmarked for military equipment.

But Mr. Bush turned down Gen. Musharraf’s request to release 28 F-16 jets that Pakistan bought more than 13 years ago. Their delivery was blocked because of U.S. concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programs.

Still, the United States might provide upgrades and repairs to Pakistan’s fleet of 32 F-16s.

“That’s something that we’d be willing to consider if they pushed us on it,” the official said on the condition of anonymity. “But, frankly, there is just too much other stuff that Pakistan needs right now for us to go into the business of new F-16s.”

The F-16s are a sore subject for Islamabad, which was chagrined to learn last week that the Bush administration had assured Pakistan’s rival, India, that the planes would not be released. When Mr. Bush was asked about this yesterday by a Pakistani reporter, Gen. Musharraf piled on.

“You’re never going to escape this,” the Pakistani president said.

“I know,” Mr. Bush said before turning to the press. “The president is not afraid to bring up the issue of F-16s. He has been a strong advocate for the sale of F-16s to Pakistan.”

Although Mr. Bush said the F-16s “won’t be a part” of the five-year, $3 billion package, which would need congressional approval, the president pledged to “work closely with our friend to make sure that the package meets the needs of the Pakistan people.”

The senior administration official said the aid is contingent on Pakistan’s making progress in democratization, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.

“I’m not calling those conditions, but let’s be realistic,” the official said. “Three years down the road, if things are going badly in those areas, it’s not going to happen.”

Still, there are fears in Pakistan that Gen. Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, might dissolve the nation’s parliament.

“It may sound rather odd that I, being a military man, am talking of democracy,” Gen. Musharraf said. “But let me assure you that I am extremely concerned about introducing sustainable democracy in Pakistan.

“Over the 50 years, five decades, we have had dysfunctional democracy in Pakistan,” he added. “And what I am doing, really, is to introduce sustainable democracy.”

Gen. Musharraf pledged that “all the constitution changes, all the political restructuring that we have done, is in line with ensuring sustainable democracy.

“We will continue with this process to ensure that democracy is never derailed in Pakistan.”

Mr. Bush gently nudged Gen. Musharraf toward democracy while taking care to praise him as a reformer.

“He’s working to build a modern Pakistan that is tolerant and prosperous,” Mr. Bush said. “Achieving this vision of moderation and progress will require movement toward democracy in Pakistan.”

During a 90-minute meeting before yesterday’s news conference, Mr. Bush quizzed Gen. Musharraf about efforts to curb Pakistani schools known as madrassas that serve as breeding grounds for Islamic terrorists.

“President Bush, pushed on that, said, ‘How’s that going?’” the senior administration official said. “And President Musharraf said, ‘We’re making progress. Not as fast as I would like,’ he admitted, ‘but we’ve already seen some 1,200 madrassas register with the government.”

Schools that register receive support from the Pakistani government and commit themselves to a curriculum that is at least partially secular. The official said the idea is “to sort of get them away from rote learning of the Koran plus hatred of America into a study of the Koran but also study of math, science — English, too — topics that the Pakistani children really want.”

At the outdoor press conference, Mr. Bush said Gen. Musharraf “is dealing with the madrassas in a way that is productive and constructive.”

The rewards for such progress extend beyond the proposed $3 billion in aid, some of which would be spent on enhancing economic opportunity for Pakistanis. Within the past year, the United States has canceled $1 billion of debt owed by Pakistan, which still owes $2 billion.

Also at yesterday’s private meeting, Gen. Musharraf promised not to have military contacts with North Korea.

“He basically made it clear that he understood that any sort of contacts in any sort of military-related field, whatever they are, are a no-go area,” the official said.

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