March 1, 2007 / 10:20 PM / in 10 years

U.S. pressure could destabilize Pakistan: envoy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. pressure, including congressional threats to cut or put conditions on billions of dollars in aid, could destabilize Pakistan and maybe even bring down President Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad's envoy to Washington said on Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters, Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani expressed concern that anti-terrorism cooperation among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan was eroding and rejected what he said were attempts to unfairly blame Islamabad for an upsurge in cross-border violence.

Tampering with U.S. aid levels will fan anti-Americanism, strengthen the extreme right and Taliban supporters, be counterproductive, and "create problems for Musharraf to be able to continue the way he is," Durrani said.

Asked if it might trigger Musharraf's ouster, he replied: "I don't know. Possibly it could bring him down. It could destabilize the whole country. It could cause mega-problems there. That is possible."

His comments came after top American intelligence officials said the front-line U.S. ally in the war on terrorism had allowed a resurgence of al Qaeda and Taliban forces and training camps in Pakistani tribal areas that could someday lead to another September 11-type attack on the United States.

"What I'm worried about today more than anything else is this unhinging of the cooperative relationship ... In this very critical field of (cooperation on) counter-terrorist operations there seems to be a problem. We need to fix it," Durrani said.

Vice President Dick Cheney visited Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this week and urged Musharraf to take tougher action against militants on his side of the lawless border. He also called attention to efforts by the U.S. Congress to restrict or alter billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid to Pakistan.

Taliban Leader Captured

On Thursday, Pakistani security forces captured a high-ranking Taliban leader in the southwestern city of Quetta, a senior Pakistani security official and Taliban sources reported.

The Bush administration considers Musharraf a key ally who has taken great risks to help defeat Afghan-based militants after the September 11 attacks, including by providing access to bases and overflight rights.

But with continued instability in Afghanistan and reports that extremists are building new bases in Pakistan possibly abetted by Pakistani intelligence services, many in Washington wonder whether a new strategy is needed.

A recent report by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies questioned whether the U.S. alliance with Musharraf has "run its course," while acknowledging there is no obvious successor to lead nuclear-armed Pakistan as a moderate Muslim state.

Durrani argued that the United States, "distracted" by Iraq, failed to finish the job in Afghanistan and is now looking for someone to blame.

He acknowledged problems in Pakistani tribal areas, including "a possibility of some presence of al Qaeda, definitely some presence of Taliban" but he insisted 90 percent of the violence stems from Afghanistan.

Some U.S. experts have questioned whether more than $10 billion in aid to Pakistan over the past five years may be too heavily weighted toward military operations and should focus more on education and other "softer" projects, but Durrani said the mix should not be changed.

He urged Washington to expedite delivery of attack helicopters and night vision devices in time for an expected Taliban spring offensive.

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