- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Last week’s Pakistani offensive against an Islamist warlord near Peshawar was just an example of what is in store for any extremists who challenge the nation’s new government militarily, Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani said in an interview Monday.

Several more actions planned for the Afghan border area in the coming days will demonstrate to the world the new government’s commitment to fighting the Taliban and other extremist groups, the ambassador told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“The message [in Saturday’s strike against a Taliban-allied militant group led by Mangal Bagh] is that this is going to happen to anyone who does the same thing,” said Mr. Haqqani, who said government forces would chase down Mr. Bagh in the remote corner of Pakistan’s tribal regions where he has fled.

Mr. Bagh and his force of tribal militants sparked the weekend attack by encroaching into positions around the northwestern city of Peshawar and seeking to impose extreme Islamic practices on the inhabitants. The group was quickly routed by Frontier Corps troops backed with tanks and helicopters, sending Mr. Bagh fleeing for safety.

The envoy, appointed shortly after a new democratic coalition won Pakistan’s February parliamentary elections, added that “there are going to be several actions in the next few days” along the border with Afghanistan that will demonstrate Pakistan’s commitment to working with Afghanistan and NATO forces to crush terrorist havens inside the country.

U.S. and Afghan officials have criticized Pakistan’s commitment in the past to hunt down Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who is thought to have taken refuge in loosely governed tribal areas that straddle the border.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week that the flow of fighters into Afghanistan remained “clearly a concern.” Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, who arrived in Islamabad on Monday for three days of talks, told a Senate hearing last week that previous Pakistani agreements to work with local tribal leaders to curb the militants had not worked.

The ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, an ally of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, sparked concern in Washington by appearing to revive a strategy used by President Pervez Musharraf to cut deals with prominent militant leaders and tribal chiefs.

U.S. military leaders and Afghan officials complained that militant cross-border strikes surged after past efforts at compromise.

But Mr. Gilani and Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani on June 25 endorsed another action plan to deal with extremists on the border, a mix of negotiations with some militant leaders and military action against others.

Mr. Haqqani said the new plan would have far greater legitimacy and effectiveness because it had been drafted and approved by a democratically elected government.

He said the first operation, launched in the Khyber tribal area Saturday, had achieved its “basic objective” by destroying bases and safe houses belonging to Mr. Bagh in the village of Bara, about 10 miles outside Peshawar. The militant leader was not caught.

“The message is, ‘This is going to happen to anyone who tries to do this kind of thing,’” the ambassador said. “The Pakistani military has been given the job and task of ensuring that there will be no flow of Taliban fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan.”

Mr. Gilani, meeting with Mr. Boucher in Islamabad, said his government was ready to sit down with Islamists who rejected violence, but would “never negotiate with militants nor allow foreigners to use our soil against another country.”

A powerful explosion Monday, the third day of the Bara mission, destroyed a militant compound and killed up to eight people, according to wire service accounts.

The compound belonged to a militant belonging to the Vice and Virtue Movement, which is suspected of launching attacks inside Afghanistan.

While Mr. Haqqani labeled the operation a success, Baitullah Mehsud, considered one of the Taliban’s top military commanders in Pakistan, said he was suspending his own contacts with the government to protest the attack.

Parties critical of Mr. Musharraf dominated the February vote, but Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, have quarreled at times about the new government’s agenda.

The ambassador, a former scholar and journalist well known in Washington’s think-tank community, said the new government may take longer to reach a decision than when Mr. Musharraf dominated the political landscape, but that its policies were more likely to stick.

“There’s a difference between a drift and a transition,” Mr. Haqqani said. “Making decisions is a slightly lengthier process than it was when one person could make it. But the upside to it is that once the decision is made, it has national support and consensus.”

Mr. Haqqani also faulted aspects of U.S. policy toward the region in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying there has been a “complete failure” of American public diplomacy in Pakistan and the Muslim world to explain and defend U.S. objectives and interests in the global war on terrorism.

He said the obsession with security after Sept. 11 had damaged the country’s image abroad, sometimes in ways Americans do not appreciate.

“You would not believe how small things help bin Laden,” he said. “Every time a significant, respectable Pakistani is humiliated at an American airport, despite having a valid visa, the story doesn’t even make it into your papers, but it’s the biggest story of the day in Pakistan.”

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