Pervez Musharraf says he still gets the question a lot: When will Osama bin Laden and his top deputy be caught? The Pakistani president insists it's more important for his 100,000 troops on the Afghan border to root out the Taliban than search for al-Qaida leaders.
That bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are still at large "doesn't mean much," the former general said Tuesday on the second day of a swing through Europe. He suggested they are far less a threat to his regime than Taliban-linked militants entrenched in Pakistan's west.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahri are believed to be hiding somewhere in the lawless tribal areas along Afghanistan's frontier with Pakistan.
"The 100,000 troops that we are using ... are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahri, frankly," Musharraf told a conference at the French Institute for International Relations. "They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly."
A U.S. ally in its war on extremist groups, Musharraf has come under increasing pressure following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month and for his brief declaration of emergency rule in early November.
Musharraf, who as commander of Pakistan's military seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, said the remnants of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and its Pakistani sympathizers are the "more serious issue" for both countries.
But he said there was "zero percent chance" that al-Qaida, the Taliban and their Pakistani allies could defeat his 500,000-strong army or that Islamic militants could win control of the government in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
As part of the "multi-pronged strategy" against terrorists, Pakistan has erected fences "selectively" and set up 1,000 checkpoints along the Afghan border in an effort to stop militants from using the areas to launch attacks inside the neighboring nation, he said.
Musharraf credited cooperation between Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA, both of whom believe that Pakistani militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was the mastermind of the Dec. 27 gun and suicide bomb attack that killed Bhutto.
But in Washington, the State Department's counterterrorism chief, Dell Dailey, said the Bush administration was displeased with "gaps in intelligence" received from Pakistan about the activities of extremist groups in the tribal regions.
"We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on al-Qaida. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban," he said.
Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said Pakistan needs to fix the problem. He said the U.S. wasn't likely to conduct military strikes inside Pakistan on its own, saying that would anger many Pakistanis.
Musharraf down plays attacks
Musharraf played down the impact of recent attacks by extremists in the border region of South Waziristan, calling them "pinpricks" that his government must manage — not a sign of a resurgent Taliban.
Attacks on forts in that district over the last month — including a battle Tuesday — have fanned concerns that militants with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban may be gaining control in the region.
Pakistan's army said fighting at the fort and another clash killed at least seven paramilitary border guards and 37 militants Tuesday.
The border region emerged as a front line in the war on extremist groups after Musharraf allied Pakistan with the U.S. following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Washington has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to help government forces battle militants.
Rising violence in the border region and a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan that killed hundreds in recent months have added to uncertainty before next month's elections, which many people predict will further weaken Musharraf's grip on power.
Despite turmoil at home, Musharraf defended his visit to four European countries, saying he wasn't concerned about the stability of his regime while he was away.
"I can assure you that nothing will happen in Pakistan," he said. "We are not a banana republic."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met privately with Musharraf on Tuesday, expressed support for Pakistan's fight with extremists and promised to press for increased European Union aid when France takes over the bloc's rotating presidency in July, Sarkozy's office said.