ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Completing a peace mission to India and Pakistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday praised both for trying to ease tensions but cautioned that their forces facing each other across the border are "beginning to feel the stress of high alert."
At a news conference in the Pakistani capital, Rumsfeld urged the two countries to begin a direct dialogue on ways to reduce military forces along the Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistani sectors of Kashmir.
"Countries need to talk to each other," he said in a joint appearance with Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar on the final stop of a trip aimed at easing tensions on the subcontinent.
Rumsfeld appeared to backtrack a bit from a statement Wednesday that while he had no evidence of numbers or location, there were indications Al Qaeda terrorists are operating near the Line of Control.
He told reporters Thursday: "I do not have evidence and the United States does not have evidence of Al Qaeda in Kashmir. There are scraps of intelligence from "people saying they believe Al Qaeda are in Kashmir or in various locations" but: "It tends to be speculative. It is not actionable. It is not verifiable."
If such speculation were verifiable, Rumsfeld added, "There isn't any doubt in my mind but that the Pakistan government would go find them and deal with them."
Rumsfeld made the remarks after meeting with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president. The Bush administration has credited Musharraf with aiding the American cause in Afghanistan by pressuring the hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters who fled into remote tribal areas in Pakistan.
Rumsfeld has frequently expressed confidence in Musharraf's commitment to rooting out all remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The defense secretary alluded to this as he mingled with Musharraf aides before meeting the president in his offices.
"Terrorism is as much a threat to your government as everyone else's," Rumsfeld said. He also remarked that once terrorism takes hold in a region, it becomes a very difficult problem.
"In the case of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Pakistani government has been very cooperative with the United States in helping to locate (the terrorists), and in a number of instances they have turned them over to us," Rumsfeld said Wednesday. "And that has been a very helpful thing."
Sattar, the Pakistani foreign minister, said Pakistan appreciates the role the United States has played in trying to defuse the crisis over Kashmir. But he suggested Washington could do more.
"There is no change whatever in the capability of Indian forces massed on our border," he said. "Therefore, there is no reduction in the threat."
Rumsfeld was slightly more upbeat. "Progress is indeed being made," he said. He added: "The forces on the ground in large measure still remain at a state of reasonably high alert."
Rumsfeld was asked whether either Pakistan or India is ready to make major reductions in forces in Kashmir. He responded that the high level of alert both the nuclear-armed nations have maintained for months is taking a toll. "My impression is we're at a point where, instead of having the tensions go up, we're beginning to feel the stress of high alert," he said. "And one would hope that those stresses would result over time in a ... somewhat reduced alert status."
Rumsfeld met Wednesday in New Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior government officials, including Defense Minister George Fernandes, who told reporters that he and Rumsfeld had reached an "understanding on how to deal with some of the immediate problems" between his country and Pakistan. Fernandes did not elaborate, nor did Rumsfeld give details.
Musharraf said Wednesday he remains worried that a recent easing of tensions may not last.
"The situation will remain grim until we disengage on the border," Musharraf said during a trip to Saudi Arabia. He returned to the Pakistani capital shortly after Rumsfeld arrived Wednesday night.
For some time, Indian officials have claimed that Al Qaeda members have infiltrated Kashmir, in part because that would draw a parallel to the U.S. war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. An Indian official said this week there is evidence of one dozen to two dozen Al Qaeda fighters in the Indian part of Kashmir.
Attacks on India by Muslim militants who want Kashmir to be independent, or part of Pakistan, are a main source of tensions between the two countries.
But U.S. officials previously have said they see no hard evidence of any large numbers of Al Qaeda in the Himalayan region.
Some of the Pakistani militants in Kashmir do have long-standing ties to Al Qaeda, and some trained in Usama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. A few non-Pakistani Al Qaeda supporters are believed to have sought refuge in Kashmir, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.