Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday that the search for Osama bin Laden has gone completely cold, with no recent intelligence indicating where he and his top lieutenants are hiding.
More than three years after al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killed almost 3,000 people, Musharraf insisted that Pakistani forces are still aggressively pursuing the world's most notorious terrorist. But he acknowledged that recent security force operations and interrogations have been able to determine only one fact — that bin Laden is still alive.
"He is alive, but more than that, where he is, no, it'll be just a guess and it won't have much basis," Musharraf said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters. Pressed on whether the trail had gone cold, he said, "Yes, if you mean we don't know, from that point of view, we don't know where he is."
The United States shares major responsibility, Musharraf suggested, because the U.S.-led coalition does not have enough troops in Afghanistan, which has left "voids." The United States and its allies need to expedite training and expansion of the new Afghan army as the only viable alternative, he said.
Call to boost Afghan army
Challenges in Afghanistan would be better dealt with "if the Afghan national army is raised faster, in more strength, so that they can reach out to fill these voids that I am talking about, where U.S. forces or coalition forces are not there," he said.
The hunt for al Qaeda is also foundering because of the diffuse array of groups under its umbrella. Pakistani forces are usually not even certain who or what factions they are pursuing in the treacherous tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan, Musharraf said, speaking shortly after a meeting with President Bush.
"Now, when we operate in many areas, we don't know who we are operating against and suddenly we find out that, okay, we've got [or] we've killed so-and-so," Musharraf said. Sometimes Pakistani forces just "bump into them," he added.
In a raid over the past week, Pakistani security forces captured the mastermind behind the month-long seizure of three United Nations workers in Afghanistan, "but we didn't know we were operating against him," Musharraf added. In another recent raid on an unidentified target, Pakistani troops killed a member of a Chinese East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group of Uighur Muslims challenging Chinese control over an area around Xinjiang, he said.
The Pakistani leader, who has been the most pivotal ally in the war on terrorism, denied news reports yesterday that his troops were withdrawing from south Waziristan, a tense tribal area along the mountainous border that was considered a possible hiding place for bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi renegade, and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman Zawahri.
Pakistan instead has ordered a "relocation" and tactical shift of its forces now that extremists have been flushed out of five valleys in south Waziristan and forced into remote mountains, where they will be pursued by Pakistan's helicopter-borne Special Operations Task Force, Musharraf said.
As many as 8,000 troops have been deployed there in recent operations to nab extremists who cross from Afghanistan or use the border region. The Pakistani government's military operation, combined with a political push to win cooperation from the local population, has been a recent victory. "They're on the run now," he said.
After their White House talks, Bush yesterday defended Musharraf and said he was "very pleased" with Pakistan's efforts to fight al Qaeda.
"His army has been incredibly active and very brave in southern Waziristan, flushing out an enemy that had thought they had found safe haven," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office with Musharraf at his side. Noting two failed assassination attempts on Musharraf, Bush added "there is nobody more dedicated" to tracking down bin Laden or other extremists.
The Bush administration played down any tension over continuing efforts by U.S. investigators to learn more about the black market nuclear technology network run by Pakistan's premier scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. U.S. officials believe Khan has not been fully candid in disclosing the scope of his help to nations such as Libya seeking to develop nuclear bombs. But Pakistan has refused to allow U.S. or International Atomic Energy Agency investigators to interrogate Khan, who was pardoned by Musharraf and remains in Pakistan under what officials call house arrest.
During their closed meeting, attended by Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his designated successor, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bush talked with Musharraf about obtaining more information from Khan but did not ask for direct access, according to a senior administration official.
The official, who briefed reporters afterward on the condition that he not be identified, said the United States has already "obtained a treasure trove of information" from Pakistan about Khan's network but added that "we need to go back and make sure we've gotten every nook and cranny." Musharraf, he said, promised "that he was going to take this on when he got back to Islamabad and make sure that the information that is available is fully shared."
Khan 'a hero for the masses'
During the Post interview, Musharraf ruled out granting any outsiders access to Khan because it would ignite anger among a public that long revered Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. "It's a very sensitive issue inside Pakistan," he said. "The man has been a hero for the masses." In addition, Musharraf said he considered any such request a personal affront. "It shows a lack of trust."
Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, signaled again that he may break his promise to surrender his position as head of the Pakistani military by the end of the year. Although he made the promise in an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to restoring full democracy to Pakistan, Musharraf said in the interview that he may retain his dual roles as civilian and military leader to guarantee "the sustainability of our policies."
But he grew testy at the suggestion that such a move would undermine his country's democratic development, saying he had taken many steps to empower women and minorities and guarantee a lively and free media. "The amount that I, in uniform, have done for democracy has never been done in the past in Pakistan," he said. "So let's not see democracy in the limited scope of [a] uniform. I don't believe that is the end-all of democracy." Under his rule, he added, "there is total democracy in Pakistan."
Unifier, dictator, or both?
As he often has in the past, Musharraf characterized himself as the indispensable figure holding together a fractious country that needed to find unity among its political, bureaucratic and military establishments to confront its problems. "At this moment," he said, "I provide that unity."
Musharraf said Bush did not push him to relinquish his army post or take any new steps toward democracy. A senior administration official said Musharraf has committed to moving toward full democracy "at a pace that works for Pakistan" and praised his moves so far. "The institutions of democracy are strong; he's making them stronger," the official said in a briefing. "He's made it clear he intends to go the full way."
On other issues, Musharraf expressed hope about renewed peace efforts with neighboring India over the disputed region of Kashmir. "I think we've broken new ground," he said, noting a joint statement issued in New York recently. "I see this very optimistically. But as I said, these are mere words. We need to convert them into action."
Musharraf also pressed the White House to more aggressively press for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which he said is the key to defusing tensions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world. "This is the source of all problems," he said. Bush, he added, now appears "more focused and serious" about ending the Middle East conflict.