WASHINGTON, April 20: The US military does not have permission to conduct operations inside Pakistan’s tribal territory even if it is tipped that Osama bin Laden is hiding in that area, says the commander of the US Central Command (Centcom).
Admiral William Fallon told a congressional hearing that the arrangement they had with Islamabad did not allow them to take direct military actions against targets inside Pakistan.
But he assured members of the House Armed Services Committee that if he received “information on the exact whereabouts of Osama, we’d do everything we possibly could to try to get him.”
Congressman Gene Taylor, a Democratic member of the committee, however, insisted to know what the Centcom would do “if Osama … was identified to be in a specific building, on a specific street, on a specific village in Waziristan.”
“I do not have permission to go across that border on my own, and to conduct activities within that country, without some arrangement or agreement with the government of Pakistan,” he said.
Admiral Fallon also disagreed with the suggestion that under the Waziristan agreement, Islamabad had given the area to any specific group.
Admiral Fallon said that in a recent meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, he discussed with him “situations in which we might ask for specific help and has been assured that (we) would receive those, should I bring those to him, to his attention.”
He said he could not discuss the agreement’s details, but he could assure the lawmakers that “from the highest level, I’ve gotten his assurance of assistance if we have an issue that we think we need to work.”
Responding to a question from Republican Congressman John McHugh, Admiral Fallon conceded that President Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai “have differing opinion, to put it mildly,” on how to deal with the “complex issue” of the Taliban activities in the tribal belt.
He said President Musharraf was “pretty eloquent” in taking him through a long list of things that people had “suggested, requested or demanded” that the Pakistanis do and he “met with different reactions from him.”
The Centcom chief said that while discussing “the big picture” with President Musharraf to see “what the level of commitment seems to be from him,” he noted “a couple of significant things.”
President Musharraf, he said, had moved two brigades from the Indian border to the west of the country.
“Given the mind-set … within that country, this is pretty significant. Because of all the things that they are concerned about, they still have this fixation on the Indian frontier and the challenges between these countries.”
Admiral Fallon said that during a recent trip to the Pacific, he also was able to have “an insight” into the Indian side as well.
Admiral Fallon said that President Musharraf has given his commanders authority to work with US commanders down to battalion level.
The Centcom chief said that he also discussed the border situation with US troops in Afghanistan and asked them if they had seen a difference in Pakistan’s commitment to stopping cross-border attacks. “The answer is yes and yes, and I think this is really good.”
President Musharraf, however, asked the Americans to keep in mind that this was a Pashtun tribal area, encompassing large swaths of land on both sides of the border. “These people don’t recognise a border. This is their tribal territory, and they feel they've got a right to go back and forth and do what they do.”
Admiral Fallon also reminded the US lawmakers that in the last several weeks, there’s been a significant conflict in South Waziristan.
“This conflict was instigated by tribal leaders … in Pakistan who have had enough, not unlike the tribal leaders in Anbar in Iraq, with outsiders – troublemakers, Al Qaeda-inspired and other we’re-here-to-help never-do-wells.”
The tribal leader felt that the outsiders have been destabilising not only the border region in Afghanistan but inside of Pakistan and they have been successful in ejecting a significant number of these insurgents from outside.
“I see all of these things as very positive steps. And President Musharraf assured me that he would continue to work it to the best of his ability, and if I had a specific issue that I wanted to take up in here, he’d be happy to entertain it,” the admiral concluded.