WASHINGTON – The White House is pressuring Pakistan to crack down on Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the lawless border area with Afghanistan that President Bush recently said was "wilder than the Wild West."
The move comes amid growing concern in Congress and the administration that terrorist forces are regrouping in the border area and preparing for a spring offensive in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday the administration was concerned that Al Qaeda was attempting to stage a comeback.
"I don't doubt that Al Qaeda has tried to regenerate some of its leadership," Rice said on ABC's "This Week." "I don't doubt that. I don't think that anybody would claim that this is the same organization or the same kind of organization that operated out of Afghanistan.
"But we have to be vigilant, and that's why we are working with the Pakistanis, we are working with the Afghans, we're working worldwide in our intelligence network to continue to degrade this institution, this organization worldwide and on the Afghan border," the secretary said.
Pakistan's border regions have long been suspected to be the hiding places for Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Pakistan, an Islamic country, is one of the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid.
Rice, asked whether Musharraf was constrained in how tough he could be, said, "I'm certainly aware that there are political issues in Pakistan. To not say that would be not to face reality."
But she said Musharraf has been "a stalwart fighter" and himself a target of Al Qaeda assassination attempts.
"And the Pakistani leadership knows that Al Qaeda would like nothing better than to destabilize Pakistan and to use Pakistan as the base rather than Afghanistan for its operations," Rice said. "And so we have excellent cooperation with the Pakistanis on hunting down Al Qaeda, on working to disrupt its network. More Al Qaeda have been caught in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia than any other place in the world.
"And so they are working very hard with us," the secretary said. "We have excellent cooperation on that.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, earlier this month, traveled to Pakistan for talks with Musharraf, about the terrorist traffic across its border into Afghanistan. Recent sharp criticism of Pakistan's porous border has triggered angry denials from Musharraf.
Asked whether he had talked with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf about the hunt for Al Qaeda fugitive Usama bin Lden, Gates said he would not "get into specifics" about their talks.
But, said Gates, "If I were Usama bin Laden, I'd keep looking over my shoulder."