- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

The head of the U.S. Central Command said Sunday that the Taliban’s increasing foothold in the mountains of Pakistan “threatens the very existence” of the country, but he said he is confident that the nation’s military will protect its nuclear arsenal and that Taliban brutality has provoked Pakistanis to unite against the militia.

“Certainly the next few weeks will be very important in this effort to roll back, if you will, this existential threat, a true threat to Pakistan’s very existence that has been posed by the Pakistani Taliban,” Gen. David H. Petraeus said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Gen. Petraeus added that reports of brutality and repression by the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan have helped rally public support for the country’s military offensive into the region to fight the militant organization - a scenario that could turn the tide in Pakistan’s battle to crush the group.

“The actions of the Pakistani Taliban … have galvanized all of Pakistan - not just the president and the prime minister but also even the opposition leaders, virtually all the elements of the political spectrum and the people,” the general said. “So there is a degree of unanimity that there must be swift and effective action taken against the Taliban in Pakistan.”

Gen. Petraeus said U.S. military and security analysts don’t think Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban.

“We have confidence in their security procedures and elements and believe that the security of those [nuclear] sites is adequate,” he said.

Several signs in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater Sunday were less optimistic. Two members of Congress said they did not think Afghan President Hamid Karzai was being fully cooperative with the U.S.

The U.S. national security adviser and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari both said they didn’t know where Taliban ally Osama bin Laden can be found, and U.S. officials rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for an end to bombing raids in his country.

National Security Adviser James L. Jones said the U.S. will not end air strikes in Afghanistan, as demanded by Mr. Karzai after two villages were hit by U.S. warplanes last week, killing scores of civilians, perhaps as many as 130. The U.S. has accused the Taliban militia of using civilians as human shields.

“I think that we’re going to take a look at trying to make sure that we correct those things we can correct, but certainly to tie the hands of our commanders and say we’re not going to conduct air strikes, it would be imprudent,” Mr. Jones said on ABC’s “This Week” program.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill also expressed impatience Sunday with the Afghan leader. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who met with Mr. Karzai last week, said he took exception to his “smugness” and “flippancy” when he was asked serious questions.

“I asked about what our mission in Afghanistan ought to be, and I thought President Karzai’s response was a non-response,” Mr. Corker said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “When I pushed him further, he basically said, ‘Look, this is your mission,’ which made me feel that our partnership there was not quite, I think, what Americans would like to see.”

Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who also met with the Afghan president last week, agreed that Mr. Karzai has been less than fully cooperative.

“I was in the same meeting, and some of the concerns that [Mr. Corker] raises are very well founded,” Mr. Casey said on CNN.

Pakistan says it has 175,000 troops fighting in the rugged and mountainous region to defeat Taliban fighters who had taken over after being driven out of Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Taliban had provided safe harbor to al Qaeda and bin Laden, prompting the U.S. invasion.

As to the whereabouts of bin Laden, Mr. Jones said Sunday that he isn’t sure whether he is alive or dead.

“The truth is, I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” the retired Marine general said.

As if to emphasize the disagreement, Mr. Zardari says he thinks bin Laden is dead, while Mr. Karzai has said that he thinks the terrorist leader is alive.

When Mr. Zardari was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday about bin Laden’s whereabouts, he quipped that since the United States has been searching for him for eight years, “you tell me.”

“You’ve lost him in Tora Bora - I didn’t,” he said.

Still, Mr. Zardari said that his country will continue to cooperate with the United States in searching for bin Laden.

“The world is looking for him, and we are part of the world,” he said.

Mr. Jones vowed that U.S. intelligence agencies won’t stop searching for confirmed sightings of bin Laden. “We’ll just continue to press on and we’ll see what happens there,” he said.

He added that even if bin Laden’s influence and effectiveness have waned within al Qaeda, finding and capturing the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would be a major symbolic blow to the anti-American terrorist movement worldwide.

“It’s clear that movement has been resilient in replacing their leaders as quickly as we are able to capture or eliminate them,” Mr. Jones said. “But I think symbolically it would be a very big thing if [bin Laden] weren’t” in control.

Although it was driven out of Afghanistan years ago, the Taliban has been on the rise in recent months and is now widely considered to be a greater threat in Pakistan.

Gen. Petraeus said on Fox News that ultimately it’s up to Pakistan - not the United States - to defeat Taliban militants in Pakistan.

“This is not a U.S. fight that Pakistan is carrying out at this point in this effort,” he said. “This is a Pakistani fight, a Pakistani battle.”

Gen. Petraeus said Pakistani authorities have responded well to increased Taliban activity in the region. After meeting with Mr. Zardari and his aides in Washington last week, the general said the Pakistani leader has a good understanding of how best to fight and root out the Taliban.

“I can tell you that in our dialogue with Pakistani leaders this past week there is a clear recognition of the concept of counterinsurgency operations, of employing all the tools of government - a ‘whole government’ approach,” Gen. Petraeus said later Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

While acknowledging that a “trust deficit” had emerged between Washington and Pakistan, Gen. Petraeus said that last week’s meetings with Pakistani and Afghan officials in Washington were “quite productive and positive.”

“I think most participants assessed after the conduct of the trilateral meetings that not just the rhetoric, but even the substance exceeded expectations,” Gen. Petraeus said.

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