WASHINGTON -- President Bush's homeland security adviser said yesterday that the United States was prepared to take additional measures, including military force, to curb Al Qaeda's operations in remote regions of Pakistan.
"Job No. 1 is to protect the American people. There are no options off the table," said Fran Townsend, the White House aide, adding, "No question that we will use any instrument at our disposal" to deal with Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
While Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, agreed with that approach, Pakistan's foreign minister criticized any possible US military intervention as counterproductive, saying it would further alienate the Pakistani public against the United States.
"Let the United States provide us with actionable intelligence and you will find that Pakistan will never be lacking," Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri said earlier yesterday, responding to comments made by Townsend late last week. "Pakistan's army can do the job much better and the result will be that there will be far less collateral damage."
Kasuri, who appeared on CNN's "Inside Edition," said his country is committed to "controlling terrorism, and people in Pakistan get very upset when despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making you get all these criticisms."
Asked about Kasuri's comments, Townsend said US officials were providing real-time intelligence to Pakistan's military. "We worked very closely both with the intelligence service and the Pakistani military," she said, noting that Pakistan's military has taken hundreds of casualties in the fight.
Townsend's comments yesterday on "Fox News Sunday" and the CNN program come at a particularly vulnerable time for Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, who faces a multitude of connected problems.
Those issues include the disintegrating 10-month deal with tribal leaders to police Al Qaeda along the Afghan border, and a rash of violent episodes across the country, including suicide bomb attacks and a military raid on Islamabad's Red Mosque.
In addition, the Pakistani Supreme Court last week reinstated the country's chief justice, saying Musharraf did not have the power to suspend him. The ruling is expected to complicate the general's attempts to be elected as president to a second term.
The high court, now on record for taking an independent stand against Musharraf, is expected to hear legal challenges to the president's plan for the outgoing Parliament to decide whether to give him a new five-year term, rather than wait for parliamentary elections next year.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, also has come under increasing criticism for holding the posts of president and chief of the military.
Townsend emphasized that the United States wants to work closely with Musharraf, but she indicated that the Bush administration would be ready to take additional measures if necessary.
Asked whether the United States was doing all it could in the fight against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, she said: "Just because we don't speak about things publicly, doesn't mean we aren't doing many of the things you are talking about."
Some analysts said those comments would not help Musharraf.
"It doesn't help at all to have a public fracas over this if we want Musharraf and his government to move against the folks in the mountains," said Ray McGovern, a retired 27-year CIA analyst. "The right way, like in the past, is to work behind the scenes."
McGovern, who has actively opposed the war in Iraq, said that since the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, and the subsequent fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Musharraf has had a delicate balancing act: help the United States, but not to appear to jump at its command.
"The question was always whether he would be seen as a puppet of the US, and not acting in the best interest of Pakistan, and that has come home to roost," he said.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan's northwest tribal region, Islamic militants detonated bombs close to military convoys and attacked government positions yesterday, leading to fights that left 19 insurgents dead, government officials said. The fighting was the latest since militants announced the termination of a peace agreement with the government last week after the military's raid on the Red Mosque.
The Bush administration released a National Intelligence Estimate last week that highlighted Al Qaeda's increasingly comfortable hideout in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
President Bush, in his taped weekly radio address Saturday, said "one of the most troubling" assessments in the report was the finding that Al Qaeda was gaining strength in the tribal region of Pakistan.
The national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, said yesterday that he believed that bin Laden was living in the tribal region.
McConnell also said Musharraf's deal with tribal leaders now appears to have backfired badly. "Al Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Reid, the Senate majority leader, agreed with Townsend that the US should go after Al Qaeda militarily "wherever they are."
"I don't think we should take anything off the table," Reid said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"Wherever we find these evil people we should go get them."
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com
2007 The Boston Globe