WASHINGTON: Drones that attack suspected terrorist targets inside Pakistan actually take off from the Pakistani soil, a senior US lawmaker said at a congressional hearing which also heard from the US intelligence chief that joint US-Pakistan efforts had reduced Al Qaeda’s capability to carry out terrorist attacks.

On Thursday evening, the Senate Intelligence Committee also heard from US National Intelligence Director Admiral Dennis C. Blair that nuclear weapons were preventing yet another war between India and Pakistan.

But it was Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, who stole the show with her disclosure about the use of a Pakistan base for the drone attacks.

Expressing surprise over Pakistan’s opposition to the campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against targets inside the Pakistani border, Senator Feinstein said: “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base.”

As chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Feinstein has access to classified information which requires her to exercise caution when discussing sensitive matters in public.

Even Admiral Blair was taken aback. “Pakistan is sorting out” its cooperation with the United States, he said quietly, while responding to her remarks. He did not say whether what Senator Feinstein said was correct.

The existence of drone bases inside Pakistan suggests a much deeper relationship with the United States on counter-terrorism than has been publicly acknowledged.

The CIA declined to comment, but former US intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Senator Feinstein’s account was accurate. Later, Philip J. LaVelle, a spokesman for the senator, said her comment was based solely on previous news reports that Predators were operated from bases near Islamabad.

‘Al Qaeda weakened’

Admiral Blair acknowledged that Pakistan’s current military campaign against the militants was having an impact. He said the pressure the United States, Pakistan and others were putting on Osama bin Laden and his core leadership in Fata had succeeded in weakening the terrorist group.

“Al Qaeda today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago,” he said.

The US intelligence chief, however, warned that Pakistan’s intensified campaign against terrorists has failed to subdue multiple insurgencies or quell growing radicalism in many parts of the country.

Admiral Blair noted that while no major country faced the risk of collapse at the hands of any terrorist groups, “Pakistan and Afghanistan have to work hard to repulse a still serious threat” to their governments.

He also warned of an “Arc of Instability” stretching from the Middle East to South Asia that would be the source of challenges throughout the century.

Impact of N-arms

Admiral Blair also spoke about the impact of nuclear weapons on India-Pakistan relations. He said that leaders in both countries realised that a war between them could soon get out of control, resulting in ‘tremendous devastation’ on both sides.

“I think there are a number of factors that would perhaps change the attitude that was there in 1947. One certainly is the possession of nuclear weapons by both sides,” Mr Blair said.

“There is no doubt that senior Pakistani and Indian leaders feel that a war between them would get out of hand and would result in tremendous devastation for both sides, far more than the issues in general in Kashmir that they’re confronting over,” he said.

“I think the violent extremism in the region of South Asia is changing attitudes, perhaps slowly, in Pakistan and in India... Now Pakistan is realising that this violent extremism can be a threat to them,” Admiral Blair said.

Admiral Blair said that determined efforts by Indian and Pakistan leaders to improve relations would fail unless Islamabad, for its part, took meaningful steps to cut support to anti-Indian militant groups and New Delhi, for its part, made credible efforts to allay Pakistan’s security concerns.

“The increase in violent attacks within India is a cause of great concern to its government, as is instability in neighbouring countries in South Asia,” he said.

In a stark departure from the Bush years, the US intelligence chief said that the failing global economy was a bigger threat to US security than Al Qaeda or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which had led the list for years.

The admiral said that a worsening economy led the list of “emerging areas of concern,” while other growing threats include global warming and worldwide food, water and energy shortages.

“Time is probably our greatest threat. The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to US strategic interests,” he warned.

His comments on the economy were the biggest change from past threat assessments. In recent years the annual assessment, delivered to Congress had focused primarily on terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

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