WASHINGTON – A congressional watchdog group and several senators declared Tuesday that nearly seven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, there appears to be no winning plan to defeat Al Qaeda and other extremists in tribal areas of Pakistan.
"I am troubled by where we find ourselves," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as he chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that took two hours of testimony from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
Kerry assured Negroponte he was not playing "gotcha," with the Bush administration. He conceded "there is no easy solution."
But he said, "We don't have a comprehensive plan."
Simultaneously, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' independent watchdog group, issued a report that declared: "The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe havens in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas."
The report said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has found Al Qaeda is using the territory to put into place the last elements necessary to launch another attack against the U.S.
And yet, the GAO said, despite $10 billion in U.S. assistance, "as of last month there was not a formally approved comprehensive plan, and support from the recently elected Pakistani government was uncertain."
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that senior military and intelligence officials believe that the next near-term attack on the United states most likely would come from Al Qaeda forces regrouping in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.
"It's a very difficult problem because this is sovereign territory" belonging to Pakistan, Mullen said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., clearly skeptical of Negroponte's report of U.S. efforts to help Pakistan with military training and support for democratic institutions, warned the State Department official that "we cannot continue to provide a blank check."
And Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said it was plain "even to a country lawyer" like himself, that the new Pakistani government was contemplating a cease-fire agreement with extremists that could set the stage for the Pakistani army to pull back and take the pressure off them.
Negroponte, for his part, urged the Pakistani government to be cautious in dealing with militants.
"The new government is committed to the war on terror," he said, "with determination as strong as ours." The central government is trying to persuade people in the tribal areas that their interest lies in an improved relationship with the rest of Pakistan, he said.
This way, Negroponte said, "the government hopes to weaken the sway of terrorists and extremists" and to deny them safe haven.
"We are not the advocates of negotiations with terrorists," he said. And in reply to Nelson, he said "we have real reservations about negotiated agreements" with extremists.
Overall, though, Negroponte acknowledged, "It is not clear what is happening now."