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Showdown may leave border open

Pakistan says it may need to shift troops watching for bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters on the Afghan frontier to meet an Indian threat.

©Associated Press
December 29, 2001


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan told the United States on Friday it may need to pull away troops patrolling its border with Afghanistan to deal with a possible conflict with India, according to Pakistani officials. The move likely would seriously hamper the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters.

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Pakistan won praise from Washington for joining the U.S.-led war against terrorism, deploying more troops to the Afghan border to watch for Taliban or al-Qaida incursions.

Now the escalation of tensions with India appears to have undercut Pakistan's ability and willingness to devote so many resources to a campaign that is far from over even though the Taliban have been ousted and only pockets of bin Laden followers remain in neighboring Afghanistan.

On Friday, a senior Pakistani army official and a Pakistani diplomatic official told the Associated Press that Islamabad might not be able to provide crucial logistical support to U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan in the event of a military conflict with India. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said Pakistan might need to shift the bulk of its forces on the Afghan border -- about 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers -- to the Indian border.

In Washington, State Department officials said they were unaware of any such communication with Pakistani officials.

A day earlier, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it would be a big disappointment if Pakistani forces left the Afghan border. A redeployment would hinder Pakistan's top mission in recent weeks: the interception of Arab and Taliban fighters fleeing across the border from Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military official said Pakistan particularly needs the Jacobabad air base in southern Sindh province, near the heaviest concentration of Indian troops. Jacobabad is the main base being used by American troops for operations in Afghanistan.

"Pakistan must give priority to its own interests," added Aitzaz Ahsam, a former Pakistani interior minister. "We would be justified in withdrawing troops and hardware from the western border. Each and every soldier and each and every gun should be used to defeat the enemy if it dares attack."

India and Pakistan have been increasing troops on their border since a Dec. 13 attack by gunmen on India's Parliament. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of sponsoring the attack, a charge Pakistan denies.

The buildup has further stretched Pakistan's military, which like India has nuclear weapons.

Ever since the United States began bombing Taliban positions on Oct. 7, Pakistan was preoccupied with its 1,340-mile porous border to the west, with Afghanistan. At first, it struggled to keep out Afghan refugees.

With the Taliban routed, Pakistan then focused its efforts on trying to seal the border near the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan, where al-Qaida fighters had holed up until Afghan foes backed by U.S. warplanes and special forces overran their positions.

Pakistani helicopters patrolled the remote ravines and barren hills. Some 6,000 troops were sent into a border town last week to search for a handful of al-Qaida prisoners who grabbed the guns of their Pakistani captors and escaped after a deadly shootout.

"Pakistan does not want to be faced with a two-front war sort of scenario if the al-Qaida network is still active," said Riffat Hussain, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"In terms of our security and military resources, we are a little bit stretched," he said. "This is the first time we've had a significant buildup of troops on the Afghanistan border."

Pakistan's leaders have been adamant they can handle both frontiers, but their thoughts are not so much on al-Qaida as India.

"That's something that does not affect Pakistan's ability to defend itself," Gen. Rashid Quereshi, a spokesman for the military government, said of the two-front dilemma. "We do not need anyone to help us defend our homeland."

As part of the campaign against terrorism, some U.S. troops are stationed at Pakistani military bases and U.S. aircraft have been allowed to use Pakistani airspace, though not as a launching pad for bombing strikes. Rumsfeld acknowledged that U.S. planes might not be in a position to fly through Pakistani airspace if the situation deteriorates.

"Needless to say, we've got thousands of Americans, military as well as civilian, in Pakistan, and clearly the bases where many of the military people are located would conceivably . . . require different force protection arrangements," he said.

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