By George Gedda
WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is asking Pakistan for permission to let U.S. military aircraft fly through its territory if airstrikes are ordered against terrorist targets in neighboring Afghanistan, a senior White House official says.
The disclosure came after Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly acknowledged for the first time Thursday that the Afghanistan-based group led by alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden is suspected in this week’s attacks against New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The senior official, asking not to be identified, said the administration wants Pakistan to close its 1,560-mile border with Afghanistan, presumably to prevent bin Laden’s operatives from leaving Afghan territory. The official also said Pakistan will be pressed to stop giving money to terror groups.
In Islamabad, a top Pakistani official said his government has informed the United States that it needs more time to consider the U.S. requests.
Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Mehmood Ahmed, who heads talks in Washington, was told that Washington’s requests “center around a possible U.S. strike on Afghanistan and how Pakistan would be expected to cooperate,” said the Pakistani official, asking not to be identified.
He said the United States was discussing a comprehensive strike to wipe out a whole network of terror operating from secret bases in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers promised revenge if the United States launches attacks on the Taliban infrastructure.
“If a country or group violates our country, we will not forget our revenge,” Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Muttmain said from the militia’s headquarters in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Muttmain did not elaborate.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was assured of Pakistani cooperation in a meeting with Ahmed Thursday night. Biden was not specific and a Biden spokesman, Jonah Blank, declined Friday to reveal the details of what was discussed or promised.
“They will be cooperative in every way,” Biden said Friday on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “It’s a matter of which pain they want to endure. They need us and they don’t want to be isolated.”
The White House official, meanwhile, said President Bush is not expected to retaliate for Tuesday’s attacks for weeks or perhaps months because he first wants to build a global coalition in opposition to terrorism.
As part of intensified diplomatic contacts, Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Friday morning. In a 10-minute conversation, Sharon offered condolences and Bush urged the prime minister to make progress with the Palestinians on ending Middle East violence, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said.
In a telephone call on Thursday, Musharraf gave Powell “a commitment to work with us,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Powell’s top aide, Richard Armitage, had met with senior Pakistani diplomats earlier in the day.
The extent of Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate is not clear, because Musharraf had not been apprised of the list of U.S. requests at the time of Powell’s call.
It also is not clear whether bin Laden is the only serious suspect to emerge since Tuesday’s devastation in New York and Virginia.
Afghanistan’s strict Muslim Taliban rulers have given haven to bin Laden and his allies for years.
Over a similar period, Pakistan had been losing favor with the United States after valued service as a Cold War ally. The souring of relations was accelerated by Islamabad’s close ties with the Taliban.
The strategic U.S.-Pakistani alliance may be resurrected, now that Washington needs Pakistan’s help in rooting out terrorism in Afghanistan.
Powell reaffirmed Thursday that the United States will take aim not only at the terrorists responsible for Tuesday’s attacks but at those who back them.
Once the United States confirms who is responsible, the objective will be “to rip that network up,” he said. “And when we are through with that network, we will continue with a global assault against terrorism in general.”
According to a Congressional Research Service report, defeating bin Laden’s network may be difficult. The report, dated the day before the terrorist attacks, said bin Laden has “cells” in 34 countries or territories and boasts 3,000 militant allies.
Afghanistan-based terrorism also is a rare issue on which the United States and Russia see eye-to-eye. High-level meetings have been held in recent years to coordinate policy, and Armitage will be traveling to Moscow next week for another next round.
Russia has been alarmed by a Taliban-backed Islamic insurgency that threatens stability in a number of former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Russia has led U.S. officials to believe that Moscow would not oppose U.S. military action against Afghanistan. It is not clear, however, whether the administration will seek tangible support from Moscow.
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