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No doubt terrorists have safe havens in Pakistan: Obama

No doubt terrorists have safe havens in Pakistan: Obama

Author: Chidanand Rajghatta
Publication: The Times of India
Date: February 10, 2009

US President Barack Obama put Pakistan on notice on Monday over its widely perceived sponsorship of terrorism, saying ''it's not acceptable for Pakistan or for us to have folks who, with impunity, will kill innocent men, women and children.''

In his first formal press conference at the White House since he took office, the 44th US president implicated Pakistan as a terrorists' host in response to a question about whether Pakistan was maintaining safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan.

''There is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan...there are safe havens where terrorists are operating,'' he said.

Obama specifically cited Pakistan for hosting terrorists although the questioner had asked about safe havens in Afghanistan. He however gave the benefit of doubt to the new civilian government of Pakistan, adding that President Zardari ''cares deeply about getting control of this situation, and we want to be effective partners with them on that issue.''

The US president's remarks came even as US Special Representative for Af-Pak (the new term to denote Afghanistan and Pakistan) Richard Holbrooke landed in Islamabad on a three-day visit that is expected to precede the roll-out of a new US policy for the region aimed at stemming the rot in the two countries.

The visit comes amid disquiet in US strategic circles about the rift between the military and its hard-line supporters and the civil society and peaceniks in Pakistan. There is growing unease in Washington that the military and its spy agency ISI, with their close ties to jihadis, still call the shots in Pakistan. The sudden release of nuclear smuggler AQ Khan, among other actions, has caused consternation in the US administration about whether the civilian government in Pakistan is in control of the situation.

At his maiden news conference that lasted an hour and centered on the economic crisis, Obama did not refer to the Khan episode or the Mumbai massacre, but it was clear that Pakistan has superseded Iraq as the new US flash point in the administration list of crisis. Obama said his administration is conducting a ''thorough-going review'' of its Af-Pak policy, with General Petraeus, now the head of CENTCOM working in concert with Holbrooke ''to evaluate a regional approach.''

Obama said one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke as he is traveling throughout the region is ''to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those (terrorist) operations, and that we've got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens.''

Asked if he had got any promise from Pakistan to act against terrorist safe havens, Obama said that's exactly why he's (Holbrooke) being sent there, ''because I think that we have to make sure that Pakistan is a stalwart ally with us in battling this terrorist threat.''

Implicit in his remarks were a continuing distrust of Pakistan in Washington aggravated by Islamabad's continued denial and bizarre responses vis-à-vis the carnage in Mumbai.

The Obama administration had already initiated a wide-ranging review of the war on terror, and it appears that the consensus in Washington is that Pakistan now poses a greater threat to the world, let alone the region, than any other country.

Large parts of the country are now out of government control and the beheading of a Polish geologist and the kidnapping of an UNHCR official has raised questions about Islamabad's control of the situation. The US has now zeroed in on ''Brit-Paks'' (the Pakistani diaspora living in UK) as the biggest potential source of another attack on America because they can enter the US easily under a visa waiver scheme for British nationals.

In fact, Pakistan continues to cover itself in disgrace across the world even as its prime minister insists that Islamabad is thwarting Indian 'designs" to isolate it. Following the execution of a Polish national at the hands of the Pakiban (Pakistani Taliban) over the weekend, the Polish justice minister Andrzej Czuma became the latest to flame Islamabad, blaming Pakistan's ''apathy'' towards tackling terrorism for the killing. ''The structure of the Pakistani government is behind this apathy. The Pakistani authorities encourage these bandits,'' Czuma was quoted as saying by the PAP news agency.

The situation in Pakistan is considered so dire that Washington has summoned the country's army chief Pervez Ashraf Kiyani for talks. Once heralded as a Musharraf acolyte who would continue to play ball with Washington, Kiyani has proved to be an enigmatic player who is believed to hold the whip-hand over Pakistan's civilian dispensation. Kiyani is expected here on February 22.

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