- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pakistan government does not believe Taliban or al-Qaida officials have moved from the tribal border region to Pakistan’s southwestern-most province and would oppose expanding U.S. drone strikes there, a government official said Wednesday.

The Pakistani reaction followed a New York Times report Tuesday that the Obama administration is considering proposals to expand air strikes into the province of Baluchistan to target al-Qaida and Taliban officials.

U.S. intelligence officials believe some militant leaders have fled there to avoid the U.S. drone attacks in the lawless tribal region to the north. The proposals are part of an ongoing larger review of U.S strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan to counter terrorist organizations and help stabilize both countries, according to the Times.

“As far as we’re concerned we do not think Taliban leadership or al-Qaida are present in Baluchistan or Quetta as some suggest,” said a Pakistan embassy official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence issue.

“If there is any evidence of Taliban or al-Qaida, we are available for intelligence sharing and we will take immediate action,” the official said.”

Pakistan has repeatedly objected to Predator drone strikes in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas along Pakistan’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan, believed by U.S. intelligence to be home to al-Qaida leaders. The Hellfire missile strikes sometimes kill innocent bystanders and Pakistani officials say they inflame anti-American sentiment.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi declined to comment specifically on the possibility of expanding the covert war into Baluchistan, but reiterated Wednesday that the U.S. had agreed to review the overall policy of drone strikes.

“We have made them agree to think over it,” he said. “In the next interaction, there is a chance to put this issue up for further discussion.”

Asked about reports that Pakistan has allowed the U.S. to use bases on its soil to land and launch the unmanned drones behind the missile strikes, Qureshi said the country “has not given uses of its bases for kinetic strikes.”

He declined to elaborate further, although the statement left open the possibility that Pakistan hosts drones that simply conduct surveillance. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at a hearing last month that Pakistan allowed the aircraft to operate from Pakistani air bases.

The White House’s Afghan war strategy review is expected to place an onus on Pakistan to contain extremism, according to defense and administration officials who said it could be completed as early as this week.

The in-house review coordinated by the White House National Security Council lays out objectives over three to five years, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. military could leave in that time, defense officials said.

The White House objectives were expected to roughly parallel 15 goals contained in a 20-page classified report to the White House from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Among them were getting rid of terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and adopting a regional approach to reducing the threat of terrorism and extremism in both countries.

The U.S. goal in Afghanistan must be to protect Kabul’s fragile government from collapsing under pressure from the Taliban, which can only be achieved by securing Pakistan’s cooperation, increasing substantially the size of Afghanistan’s national security forces and boosting economic aid in the region, according to senior military and intelligence officials.


Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide