Pakistan missed chances with al Qaeda: Hillary

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is suggesting that Pakistan`s government has squandered chances to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders.

Updated: Oct 29, 2009, 21:10 PM IST

Islamabad: US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is suggesting that Pakistan`s government has squandered chances to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders.

She made the remark in an interview on Thursday with Pakistani journalists during a trip to the city of Lahore. She later flew to the capital, Islamabad, for talks with Army Chief and additional meetings.

Hillary said al Qaeda has used Pakistan as a haven since 2002. She said she finds it hard to believe that nobody in Pakistan`s government knows where the leaders of Osama bin Laden`s terrorist network are hiding.

She also said she finds it hard to believe that Pakistani authorities couldn`t "get them" if they wanted to.

Earlier, she said that Pakistan had little choice but to take a more aggressive approach to combating the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents that threaten to destabilise the country.

With the country reeling from Wednesday`s devastating bombing that killed at least 105 people in Peshawar, Hillary engaged in an intense give-and-take with students at the Government College of Lahore, insisting that inaction by the government would have ceded ground to terrorists.

"If you want to see your territory shrink, that`s your choice," she said, adding that she believed it would be a bad choice.

Dozens of students rushed to line up for the microphone when the session began. Their questions were not hostile, but showed a strong sense of doubt that the US can be a reliable and trusted partner for Pakistan.

Hillary met with the students on the second day of a three-day visit to Pakistan, her first as Secretary of State. The Peshawar bombing, set off in a market crowded with women and children, appeared timed to overshadow her arrival. It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since 2007.

Hillary likened Pakistan`s situation — with Taliban forces taking over substantial swaths of land in the Swat valley and in areas along the Afghan border — to a theoretical advance of terrorists into the United States from across the Canadian border.

It would be unthinkable, she said, for the US government to decide, "Let them have Washington (state)" first, then Montana, then the sparsely populated Dakotas, because those states are far from the major centres of population and power on the East Coast.

Hillary was responding to a student who suggested that Washington was forcing Pakistan to use military force on its own territory. It was one of several questions from the students that raised doubts about the relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

During her hour-long appearance at the college, Hillary stressed that a key purpose of her three-day visit to Pakistan, which began on Wednesday, was to reach out to ordinary Pakistanis and urge a better effort to bridge differences and improve mutual understanding.

"We are now at a point where we can chart a different course," she said, referring to past differences over an absence of democracy in Pakistan and Pakistani association with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As a way of repudiating past US policies toward Pakistan, Hillary told the students "there is a huge difference" between the Obama administration`s approach and that of former president George W Bush.

"I spent my entire eight years in the Senate opposing him," she said to a burst of applause from the audience of several hundred students. "So, to me, it`s like daylight and dark."

Although Hillary said she was making a priority of engaging frankly and openly on her visit, she declined to talk about a subject that has stirred some of the strongest feelings of anti-Americanism here — US drone aircraft attacks against extremist targets on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border.

The Obama administration routinely refuses to acknowledge publicly that the attacks are taking place.

"There is a war going on," she said, and the US wants to help Pakistan be successful.

The drone attacks have killed a number of Pakistani civilians, while also reportedly succeeding in eliminating some high-level Taliban and other extremist group leaders.

At the same time, though, the US has been providing Pakistani commanders with video images and target information from its military drones as Pakistan`s Army pushes its ground offensive in Waziristan, US officials said earlier this week.

Also sensitive is the way the US has handled millions of dollars in aid to the Pakistani military. The US in recent months has rushed helicopters and other military equipment to the country as Islamabad has launched its counterinsurgency offensives in Swat Valley and South Waziristan.

The administration sped the delivery of 10 Mi-17 troop transport helicopters starting in June, and in July sent 200 night vision goggles, nearly more than 9,000 sets of body armour, several hundred radios and other equipment.

"We`ve put military assistance to Pakistan on a wartime footing," Lt Col Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday. "We are doing everything within our power to assist Pakistan in improving its counterinsurgency capability."

This year the Pentagon plans to spend more than USD 500 million on arms and equipment for Islamabad as well as training Pakistan`s military in counterinsurgency tactics. Still, Pakistani officials last month complained that Congress attached too many conditions to the surge in aid.

Before flying to Lahore from Islamabad, Hillary visited the Bari Imam shrine, named after Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, a 17th century Sufi saint who died in 1705 and later came to be known as the patron saint of Islamabad. A suicide bomber struck the shrine in May 2005, killing a number of people.

Bureau Report