US fears Pakistan will become new terror base

Resurgent Al-Qaeda rebuilding camps and could use them to plan US attacks.

THE Bush administration fears that future attacks against the United States could be planned from Pakistan, where a resurgent Al- Qaeda is re-establishing its foothold.

The terrorist network is rebuilding camps in Pakistan’s remote western mountains similar to those that existed in Afghanistan before Sept11, 2001.

Giving his first testimony since taking office last month, the country’s new intelligence chief, Vice-Admiral Michael McConnell, warned that Al-Qaeda was also planning terrorist strikes against the US from Iraq, Syria and Europe.

But the threat of an attack would “most likely” emerge from Islamic militants in Pakistan, he said.

“It is something we are very worried about and very concerned about,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing on global threats on Tuesday.

“We inflicted a major blow, they retreated to another area and they are going through a process to re-establish and rebuild, adapting to the seams or the weak spots as they might perceive them.”

Admiral McConnell is the most senior official here to publicly voice growing concern over efforts by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahri to resuscitate the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Such concerns were acutely manifested by the suicide bombing earlier this week at a US base in Afghanistan during the visit of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

It clearly demonstrated a bold and resurgent Al-Qaeda, now at its strongest since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Mr Cheney’s trip there was aimed at underscoring US concerns that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s efforts were not enough to eradicate radical elements from their sanctuaries in the country.

But General Musharraf has long maintained that his forces have already “done the maximum” possible against extremists in their territory, despite US concerns about intelligence suggesting that the Taleban and Al-Qaeda are planning a spring offensive against allied forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

There are also fears regarding the autonomy of Al-Qaeda and Taleban operatives in Pakistan following the government’s signing of a peace deal with the tribal leaders of the region – North Waziristan – in September last year.

In his testimony, Adm McConnell argued that Gen Musharraf “could do more” against the terrorists.

But carrying out military operations in these areas comes with risks for the Pakistani leader, who faces an election later this year.

The intelligence chief argued that attempts to crack down on Al-Qaeda must be balanced with the desire to keep the Pakistani leader a moderate and an American ally in a turbulent region.

Mr Cheney, during his recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan, had warned Gen Musharraf that a Democratic-controlled Congress could cut aid to the Pakistani military if Islamabad continued to drag its feet in dealing with Islamic militants in the country.

But US lawmakers are not too optimistic that Pakistan will do much.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who chaired the hearing on Tuesday, said: “Long-term prospects for eliminating the Taleban threat appear dim so long as the sanctuary remains in Pakistan, and there are no encouraging signs that Pakistan is eliminating it.”

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