WASHINGTON - Any future terrorist attack on the United States probably would originate in Pakistan's western tribal regions, where Al Qaeda leaders have set up their most secure haven since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the top US military officer said yesterday.
But Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said forcible action to disrupt the militants' planning effort is unlikely for now. Difficulties faced by the new government in Islamabad, including a deteriorating economy, are forcing American and Pakistani leaders to delay any move against extremists.
"I believe fundamentally if the United States is going to get hit, it's going to come out of the planning that the leadership in the FATA is generating, their planning and direction," said Mullen, referring to Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. "I'm not saying it is guaranteed it's going to happen, or that it's imminent. But clearly we know the planning is taking place."
Mullen's comments echoed the thinking among many military and intelligence officials but represent one of the starkest assessments yet about the implications of Al Qaeda's ability to reorganize in western Pakistan. Mullen visited the country's troubled border region last week.
Meanwhile, late yesterday, at least 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border as US-led forces in Afghanistan battled militants infiltrating Afghanistan, a security official said today.
The soldiers were killed at a border post in the Mohmand tribal region, Reuters reported. The official did not say how the Pakistani soldiers were killed, but residents in the area said it was believed to have been by an air strike. A government official said a pilotless US drone was suspected to have fired a missile into the area.
The Pashtun tribal regions have become the primary focus of worldwide US counterterrorism efforts amid intelligence reports that Al Qaeda has been able to regroup to levels not seen since the US invasion of Afghanistan seven years ago.
Mullen's visit, which included meetings with Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan's new Army chief, was his third in just six months but his first since the new Pakistani government took office in late March.
The new government has come under criticism for negotiating with extremist groups in the tribal areas, a policy that in the past has been criticized for allowing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to regroup. The previous efforts, spearheaded by President Pervez Musharraf, were widely blamed for the resurgence in violence in Afghanistan last year. Musharraf largely abandoned the approach under US pressure.
Mullen said he shared the concerns of international military leaders in Afghanistan, including the outgoing NATO commander, US Army General Dan K. McNeill, that the renewed negotiations were allowing fighters to cross more freely into Afghanistan. Mullen said he pressed Pakistani military leaders to take action to block cross-border attacks.
At the same time, he argued that negotiations with insurgent groups have borne fruit in other countries. He cited US military talks with Sunni extremists in western Iraq, where moderates were won over and violence fell. Because of that, US officials should remain patient as Pakistan engages Pashtun tribes in the west.
But Mullen acknowledged that, unlike in Iraq, failure to dismantle extremist groups in western Pakistan could have a direct bearing on whether Al Qaeda is able to strike the United States.
"In the FATA, it's that patience that runs you right up against that threat," he said. "And that really defines the problem."