Growing violence in Pakistan is being closely watched by US military officials who are concerned that the instability could strengthen al-Qaeda strongholds along the border with Afghanistan, a senior Defense Department official said.
Pakistani security forces, who have faced heavy opposition from insurgents in these tribal areas, have had their "ups and downs," said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
"The level of violence is ramping up. It isn't Iraq, but it's getting worse," he said on Friday.
Yet there are no plans to involve US forces in military operations inside Pakistan.
Vickers said the fighting has not affected US operations in Afghanistan, where the US-led coalition has maintained a presence since October 2001 after routing the harsh Taliban-led Islamic government that had sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government is "a very important ally in the war in terror," Vickers said.
But the relationship has become strained since Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3, a move criticized by the US.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was scheduled to meet with Musharraf yesterday.
Despite the internal issues, Vickers said Pakistan can do more to stem terrorist activity.
"We would always like them to do more given the importance of the problem," he said. "They're certainly doing a lot."
Vickers, confirmed by the Senate in July as the Pentagon's top civilian official for special operations, has substantial experience in central Asia. As a CIA officer in the early 1980s, he led the US effort to arm the Afghan rebels who ultimately drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan.
Vickers, affirming a belief held by US officials, said he believes bin Laden is hiding in western Pakistan, an area that operates autonomously from Musharraf's government.
The administration of US President George W. Bush has been trying to capture or kill bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"If we knew, I think we'd kill or capture him. We're trying very hard to do that," Vickers said.
The remoteness of the area and the hostility of the population there to Pakistani forces compound the problem of finding the al-Qaeda leader, he said.
"The al-Qaeda senior leadership has had time to build relationships there with the locals," he said. "They tend to be rather circumspect about their movements."
Eric Rudolph, who committed a series of bombings across the US in the 1990s, avoided federal authorities for nearly five years in the Appalachian wilderness, he noted.
"This is that on steroids," Vickers said.