WASHINGTON – The U.S. would consider military force if necessary to stem Al Qaeda's growing ability to use its hideout in Pakistan to launch terrorist attacks, a White House aide said Sunday. The Senate's top Democrat endorsed that approach.
The president's homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, said the U.S. was committed first and foremost to working with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, in his efforts to control militants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. But she indicated the U.S. was ready to take additional measures.
"Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things you talk about," Townsend said, when asked in a broadcast interview why the U.S. does not conduct special operations and other measures to cripple Al Qaeda.
"Job No. 1 is to protect the American people. There are no options off the table," she said. Townsend also said, "No question that we will use any instrument at our disposal" to deal with Al Qaeda and its leader, Usama bin Laden.
Responding to earlier comments by Townsend, Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said Sunday that the country's military was in the best position to attack Al Qaeda, if the U.S. provided intelligence.
The national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, said he believed that bin Laden was living in the tribal, border region of Pakistan. Bin Laden is the leader of the Al Qaeda network and mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
McConnell said Musharraf's attempt at a political solution to peace in the region had backfired by giving Al Qaeda a place and time to regroup.
"Al Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum," McConnell said. "The leadership's intact. They have operational planners, and they have safe haven. The thing they're missing are operatives inside the United States."
In the volatile northwest tribal region of Pakistan, Islamic militants detonated bombs close to military convoys and attacked government positions on Sunday, leading to gunfights that left 19 insurgents dead, government officials said. The fighting was the latest since militants announced the termination of a peace agreement with the government last week following a deadly military raid on a radical mosque in the Pakistani capital.
In the National Intelligence Estimate released last week, analysts stressed the importance of Al Qaeda's increasingly comfortable hideout in Pakistan that has resulted from a hands-off accord between Musharraf and tribal leaders along the Afghan border.
That 10-month-old deal, which has unraveled in recent days, gave Al Qaeda new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.
Since then, U.S. officials have said they expect Pakistan to launch more military strikes on Islamic militants while the Bush administration pumps hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid into lawless tribal regions to fight extremism.
On Sunday, Townsend reiterated the importance of Musharraf's efforts.
"We should also be clear that we believe Pakistan has been a very good ally in the war on terrorism," she said. "Musharraf has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts. Al Qaeda's trying to kill him. They get what the problem is. And we're working with them to deny Al Qaeda and the Taliban the safe haven."
McConnell also sought to bolster the leader of Pakistan, a key U.S. partner in its fight against terrorism. "President Musharraf is one of our strongest allies," McConnell said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he agreed with Townsend that the U.S. should consider going after Al Qaeda militarily "wherever they are."
"We have the NIE report, which just came out, that says Al Qaeda during this administration is stronger than ever. I don't think we should take anything off the table. Wherever we find these evil people we should go get them," Reid said.
But Kasuri said Pakistan was ready to act on any intelligence from the U.S.
"Let the United States provide us with actionable intelligence and you will find that Pakistan will never be lacking," he said. "Pakistan's army can do the job much better and the result will be that there will be far less collateral damage."
The new U.S. intelligence estimate said Al Qaeda is using its growing strength in Pakistan and Iraq to plot attacks on U.S. soil, heightening the terrorist threat facing the United States over the next few years. In particular, it warned that through its affiliate in Iraq, Al Qaeda is able to recruit and energize extremists for attacks.
McConnell, the nation's intelligence chief, acknowledged that the war in Iraq has served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. He said coalition forces and local leaders have had some successes in knocking back the terrorist network, particularly in the western region of the country.
But when asked if Al Qaeda has a larger, more robust presence in Iraq than before the war began, McConnell said, "That's fair to say."
Townsend spoke on "FOX News Sunday" and a cable news network. McConnell appeared on "Meet the Press" on NBC. Reid was on "Face the Nation" on CBS and Kasuri on a cable news network.