Pakistan urges more US patience over tribal areas

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan on Wednesday urged the United States to be more patient as his country fights extremists in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and said finger-pointing was unhelpful.

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Khan acknowledged his country suffered an “image problem” but said there needed to be a greater understanding of the enormous challenges faced by Pakistan in fighting militants.

“When there is often-time a kind of finger-pointing that the problems arise from [Pakistan not doing enough] ... we feel that it somehow misses on the realisation of the enormity of the challenges,” he said.

“They [the United States] should be understanding, they should be patient,” he added. “The resolve and the determination is there but it is a complex issue.”

There has been growing concern among US lawmakers and some officials in the Bush administration that al-Qaeda and other militants have become entrenched in safe havens in the tribal region near Afghanistan.

President Pervez Musharraf is an important ally in the US-led war on terrorism, but administration officials and lawmakers say he should do more to fight militants hiding in the border areas.

There is a push in the Democratic-controlled Congress to tie US aid to Pakistan to significant progress by Islamabad in cracking down on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants.

Khan said more than 100 000 Pakistani troops had been sent to the tribal areas and nearly 1 000 of the country’s forces killed in those battles.

“You cannot expect a solution overnight,” he said, adding that military action alone could not resolve the problem and political and economic efforts were needed too.

He disputed a lack of will on the part of Pakistan’s army to tackle militants and said the response to the week-long siege by Islamists in July of the Red Mosque in Islamabad showed their determination.

“This shows that when the chips are down, the army is capable of acting,” he said.
“But these things are not easy.”

Khan said any unilateral military action by the United States in Pakistan would work against his government and be unpopular with the Pakistani public.

“Our hand should be strengthened, not weakened,” he said.

Khan steered clear of discussing Saturday’s presidential election when Musharraf, an army general who took power in a 1999 coup, is seeking a new term in office.

The United States has skirted around Pakistan’s political upheavals in recent months over the upcoming election and whether Musharraf should be allowed to stand. But Washington has made clear it wants to see a smooth, democratic political transition in the 160-million strong Muslim nation.

US Senators Joe Biden and Patrick Leahy, Democrats who chair key Senate committees on foreign policy and foreign aid, sent Musharraf a letter last week warning him that future US aid to Pakistan will be influenced by its progress toward democratic, civilian-led rule. - Reuters

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