Yesterday, a "senior US official" told a whole group of reporters - including journalists from the BBC, AP and Reuters by the looks of it - that both Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar were finding safe haven inside Pakistan. The BBC reports:
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington, told reporters:The Pakistani government was quick to deny the allegations, saying that if the official was right "he would claim the bounty money, not speak to the media."
"There is no question that the iconic leaders of al-Qaeda - (Ayman al-)Zawahiri, Bin Laden... are in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
"We believe that the Taleban's shura (consultation) council leaders led by Mullah Omar reside in Quetta in Pakistan," he said.
However, this isn't the first time that such allegations have been made. The BBC notes that:
Last month, captured Taleban spokesman Muhammad Hanif made similar claims about Mullah Omar's whereabouts, which were rejected by Pakistan.So, indeed, have the Indian intelligence services, NATO commanders in Afghanistan and British MI6. The latter were even reported to have provided the address of the ISI safe house where Mullah Omar was staying in Quetta...and his cell-phone number. The Pakistani government has also made a disturbing habit of releasing captured Taliban bigwigs and of doing peace-deals with Taliban commanders in the regions bordering Afghanistan.
Mr Hanif said Mullah Omar was protected by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai made similar allegations last year.
Despite all this, the US official - an obviously publicly-known figure who has managed to speak to a gathering of reporters without any of them leaking who he was - also said that the US continues to back Musharraf. According to Reuters:
"There are multiple sources of pressure and instability on Musharraf and the sense here has been what he really needs is a dependable partner to see him through this period and that's been sort of the strategic logic of supporting Musharraf," the U.S. official said.Kayani was previously commander of the self-same ISI intelligence agency that has been accused of sheltering Mullah Omar and which was instrumental in setting up the Taliban back in the early '90's.
Musharraf over time has "given us evidence that he is worth that kind of commitment both in terms of the degree to which his forces have taken on al Qaeda in particular, and the extent to which we think he's doing quite well, given the hand he was dealt."
The Bush administration had also been very impressed with Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and considered him a "promising partner," the official said.
This may be astonishing naivete, it may be deliberate disregard for the objectives of the Bush administration's War on (Some) Terror - but it's far more likely to be a message to the Pakistani leadership that they must clean their ISI house or ultimately lose US support. The burning question if that is the case, however, will be "why did it take so long for the Bush administration to wake up and smell the coffee?"