U.S. official defends Pakistan as ally


By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
Monday, May 21, 2007; 8:29 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite persistent unease about Pakistan's commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, a senior U.S. official on Monday said Islamabad has been increasingly active in repelling Taliban and al Qaeda forces on the Afghan border.

Trying to allay doubts about Pakistan's credibility as the U.S. Congress considers new aid funding requests, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said Islamabad has taken a more aggressive approach since December that has gone largely unacknowledged.

"They've had 80,000 troops in that (border) area who've been active and I would say, for the last six months they've been increasingly active in preventing infiltration across the border, disrupting and arresting Taliban and supporting tribal leaders who are trying to expel foreign militants," Boucher said in an interview.

But a congressional aide who follows the issue was skeptical, saying: "I haven't heard anyone make that claim."

The United States enlisted Pakistan as a front-line ally in the anti-terror war after the 9/11 attacks, but since then discomfort with Islamabad's commitment has grown.

In February, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Afghanistan and Pakistan and urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to take tougher action against militants on his side of the lawless border where U.S. commanders say radical fighters are training.

Late last month, top U.S. counter-terrorism officials Frank Urbanic and Russ Travers said that "despite Pakistan's effort to eliminate threats and to establish effective governance in the (border region), these tribal areas continue to be terrorist safe havens and sources of instability for Pakistan and its neighbors."

They said Pakistan's military has raided al Qaeda and other militant safe havens. But they said tribal leaders in North Waziristan, a hotbed of support for Islamist militancy, failed to fulfill promises to cooperate with efforts to quell militants under an agreement with Musharraf, leading to additional insurgent infiltration.

A U.S. official, elaborating on Boucher's comments, said North Waziristan is only one part of the region and while the September agreement led to a pullback of Pakistani troops and removal of some checkpoints, much of that has been reversed.

This includes the redeployment of Pakistani troops from the Indian border to the Afghan border, the official said.

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the United States has given Pakistan more than $10 billion since 2001 but there is little accountability.

That includes some $700 million a year in economic, military, education, health and democracy-promotion assistance plus about $100 million per month in reimbursements to cover Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts.

Critics argue that given Pakistan's track record, the largely unregulated counter-terrorism funds, in particular, have been a waste of money.

Boucher, who oversees South and Central Asia, said much of the $700 million annual aid is for "shared" objectives to help Pakistan become a more moderate and modern society. This includes plans to spend $750 million over the next five years to develop remote tribal areas, he said.

Asked about Musharraf's decision not to allow exiled former premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return home for elections later this year, Boucher said while Washington supports free and fair polls, the exiled leaders "have issues with the Pakistani judicial system and I'm not in a position to judge. Those have to be solved by Pakistan."