- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

The day after President Bush promised to send troops into Pakistan’s restive border regions if Osama bin Laden is found to be hiding there, we were visited by the governor of one of those provinces, Lt. Gen. Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, who heads the North West Frontier Province. The governor seconded Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s dismissal of the idea: “We wouldn’t like that possibility at all. We will do it ourselves.”

The question is whether Pakistan can. A recent RAND report found that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has begun aiding insurgents in Afghanistan again in apparent backsliding on previous claims that fundamentalists had been purged. The recent peace deal between Pakistan’s government and militants in Waziristan has given further credence to worries about the “Pakistanization” of al Qaeda.

Mr. Aurakzai is something of an embodiment of Pakistani policy in the war on terror, starting with his role as commander of the hunt for al Qaeda in tribal border areas from 2001-04. Accordingly, he has achieved some notable antiterror successes, including the apprehension of hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists in the months following the toppling of the Taliban. “We have captured more al Qaeda than any country, including the United States of America,” he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. Now he heads one of the two or three most critical provinces — where many believe bin Laden to be hiding.

Mr. Aurakzai also reflected the shortcomings of Pakistan’s pursuit of al Qaeda and the so-far-unsuccessful hunt for bin Laden. In January 2005, speaking to a Whitehall audience, he said, according to the Times of London: “This impression that the Pakistani tribal areas are havens for terrorists is baseless.” He added that he “never got a single indication that bin Laden was on our side of the border.” Asked yesterday to reconsider those remarks, he said simply: “What I said was true at the time.”

He seems at times too dismissive of worries about cross-border infiltration, which he calls a “blame game,” saying: “Some crossings have taken place, but it is very, very marginal, very minimal.” He also says that “there are at best 200 of these foreigners in Waziristan.”

Mr. Aurakzai touted Pakistan’s recent peace deal with that province’s tribal leaders to the immediate west of the North West Frontier Province he governs. Under the deal, Mr. Aurakzai expects, foreign militants “will go home, or not engage in cross-border or militant activities,” claiming that by late August and early September Pakistan has neared its objectives. But officials in Washington worried privately and publicly. “I think we will clearly see over the next 30, 60, 90 days where the situation along the border is better, worse, stays the same or whatever,” Gen. James Jones told reporters, stressing that he does not second-guess the strategy.

The White House’s promise of troops for bin Laden could be a signal to Gen. Musharraf, Mr. Aurakzai and the rest of Pakistani officialdom: It’s time to get tough, or we’ll do it for you.

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