WASHINGTON – Senior U.S. envoys visited Pakistan's northwest frontier Wednesday to promote lavishly funded plans to boost security and development in a region that could be harboring Usama bin Laden.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher arrived in Pakistan on Tuesday to meet leaders of its new government, which plans to review its role in Washington's war on terror.
On Wednesday, the two diplomats were in North West Frontier Province for talks with officials responsible for the tribal areas near the Afghan border where militant groups hold sway.
They visited "security and development sites," including a mountaintop paramilitary base near the Khyber Pass and met government and army officials, the U.S. Embassy said.
While the embassy provided no details, local TV channels said the pair met with tribal leaders and commanders of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that Washington plans to train and equip to fight militants linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Washington is scrambling to build bridges with Pakistani politicians opposed to President Pervez Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally whose party was routed in parliamentary elections last month.
Western nations are seeking reassurance that the new coalition government will keep the pressure on extremists groups that use Pakistan's lawless frontier as a springboard for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.
But it is clear Pakistan's civilian rulers are rethinking the country's counterterrorism strategy, amid concern that a reliance on military force has provoked a bloody militant backlash.
Partners in the incoming coalition government have said they would negotiate with some militant groups — an approach that has drawn criticism from Washington, the source of about $10 billion in aid to Pakistan since it joined the war on terror in 2001.
Negroponte and Boucher met with old and new Pakistani leaders Tuesday, the day Musharraf swore in a loyalist of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as prime minister.
Yousaf Raza Gilani, the new premier, told President Bush during a congratulatory telephone call Tuesday that Pakistan would "continue to fight terrorism."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent Gilani a written message saying he wanted to "work closely with you to tackle the threat from violent extremism which affects both our countries," Gilani's office said.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a key figure in the new government who is demanding Musharraf's resignation, has called for change and said the new parliament would decide after exhaustive debate how Pakistan would approach Islamic extremism.
Sharif, whose government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup, lashed out at the president's U.S.-backed policies Tuesday, saying they had resulted in a wave of suicide bombings that killed Bhutto and many others.
"If America wants to see itself clean of terrorism, we also want our villages and towns not to be bombed," he added, alluding to recent airstrikes near the Afghan border apparently carried out by U.S. and allied forces.
Pakistan's biggest Islamist party echoed criticism that the visit by the U.S. envoys as the new government was taking office looked like meddling.
Khursheed Ahmad, a senator for Jamaat-e-Islami, complained of "aggressive U.S. lobbying in Pakistan to get a fresh lease of life for its disastrous and failed policies of terrorizing people and the country in the name of the war on terror."
Washington is seeking to dispel the impression that it has propped up the unpopular and increasingly authoritarian Musharraf only because of his willingness to use the army against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Last year, the U.S. pledged $750 million toward a five-year drive to develop impoverished areas along the Afghan frontier and train and equip a paramilitary force based along the frontier — steps that Pakistani leaders hope will stabilize the region and dry up extremism.
The locally recruited Frontier Corps is supposed to take the lead in fighting the militants from the regular army, which is composed mainly of ethnic Punjabis viewed as occupiers in the Pashtun-dominated northwest.
American military instructors will come to Pakistan to school Pakistani trainers in counterinsurgency techniques, though the program has not yet begun.